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Most-Watched Television Networks: Ranking 2022’s Winners and Losers

There may come a time when it just doesn’t make sense to rank the broadcast and cable networks anymore. Actually, that time is probably already here, with most viewing now taking place via streaming and other means. And yet, Nielsen’s numbers — which include time shifting and other ways people watch, not just live — are still the best barometer of who’s watching what in the linear world.

And indeed, it’s clear that live sports are still driving linear TV — ESPN is among the few top networks to receive a double-digit boost in 2022. But crime also pays: Oxygen, which NBCUniversal reworked into a true crime network several years ago received a healthy 10% bump this year. And the biggest gainer in 2022 was Reelzchannel, at a whopping 107% (granted, from a low base), thanks to the addition of the show formerly known as “Live P.D.”

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Overall, NBC led the year in total viewers (narrowly over CBS) with 5.1 million viewers, and adults 18-49 as well. Other networks in the top 100 experiencing growth included Paramount Network (thank you, “Yellowstone”), Grit, Family Entertainment TV, SundanceTV (another interesting one), IFC (ditto), Magnolia Network (recovering slightly from the moribund DIY network) and yes, Great American Family (leaning in to the holidays). FXX also saw a sizable bump thanks to a new strategy created by the team there to turn the channel (a spinoff of FX) into a destination for adult animation, where shows like “Archer,” “Bob Burgers,” “Cleveland,” “Family Guy,” “Futurama,” “King of the Hill” and “The Simpsons” now all air together.

Tomorrow, Variety will share the ranker of this year’s most-watched primetime telecasts. (Hint: Hope you like football.) But here, Variety recounts who was up and who was down in 2022.

WINNERS

ESPN

Some analysts, including Dan Loeb, have suggested that Disney spin off ESPN in order to pursue other business interests. And like all cable, the future of ESPN is an open question: It’s expensive to operate, and cord cutting continues to shrink its household penetration. But Bob Chapek exhibited no interest in cutting ESPN loose, and it’s even less likely that Bob Iger, back in control, would do so. ESPN remains a powerful brand, and it’s actually one of the few bright spots left in cable. Last year, ESPN recovered from pandemic woes by leaping 11% to an average of 1.6 million viewers in primetime; in 2022, it jumped another 14% to 1.9 million. Sister network ESPN 2 was up 8%. And this comes as other sports channels (Fox Sports 1, NFL Network, TUDN, MLB Network and others) saw drops. ESPN and ESPN 2 are also two of the few networks among adults 18-49 in the top 50 to see gains.

Crime TV
NBCUniversal’s Oxygen network — which has been rebranded “Oxygen True Crime” — saw its primetime viewership improve by 10% this year, thanks to series like the “Snapped” franchise, “Cold Justice,” “Injustice with Nancy Grace,” “Catching a Serial Killer: Sam Little,” “Kim Kardashian: The Justice Project” and “Aaron Hernandez Uncovered.” The network also recently launched as a diginet in markets including Los Angeles, where it is available over the air on as a KNBC subchannel. And then there’s Reelzchannel, which saw its primetime numbers bounce 107% thanks to the little-seen network’s coup in picking up “On Patrol: Live,” a new version of “Live PD” from host Dan Abrams and producers Big Fish. (In a lawsuit, A&E argued that “On Patrol: Live” copied nearly every aspect of “Live PD’s” format and sued for copyright infringement.)

Digi-nets

About the only thing seeing ratings gains in broadcast TV these days are the low-budget diginets — those network running on local TV subchannels. Of course, Ion and Me TV have been doing quite well for years — and aren’t really diginets, since they air as full-blown affiliates or owned TV stations in most markets. But among the diginets seeing growth or at least stability this year were Grit (up 5%), Bounce (flat), Family Entertainment TV (up 14%), Cozi (up 6%), Ion Mystery (formerly Court TV Mystery, up 13%), Laff (up 2%), Dabl (up 28%), Court TV (up 7%) and Cleo TV (up 44%).

LOSERS

G4

Comcast’s sports and esports division had tried to relaunch the video gamer-centric network two years ago, but shut it down again in October. And it’s not hard to see why: G4 was the least-watched of every network that Nielsen measures, averaging a paltry 1,000 in primetime. Its rating in adults 18-49? A zero.

Cable’s major general entertainment networks — with one exception

TNT, TBS and USA were once the titans of cable, rivaling the broadcast networks in scope. But as erosion continues and they downsize, their presence continues to fade. For the first time in years, TNT and TBS both slipped below an average of 1 million viewers in primetime, with TNT down to 965,000 (from 1.09 million) and TBS to 875,000 (from 1.03 million). USA has slipped to 738,000 (from 848,000). Others down include FX (462,000, from 504,000). Paramount Network is the one major channel to buck the trend, thanks, of course, to the halo effect of its “Yellowstone” smash — but even it saw declines in 18-49.

Below are the primetime rankers for broadcast, cable and premium cable networks in 2022, among total viewers (as well as the top 50 list in adults 18-49). Most Nielsen-rated networks can be found here, with the exception of a few channels that are not ad-supported. [For historical record, here are previous year-end network rankers: 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.]

THE MOST-WATCHED NETWORKS OF 2022 (BY TOTAL VIEWERS)

Rank

NETWORK

VIEWERS (000)

% CHANGE

1.

NBC

5,148

-7%

2.

CBS

5,144

-8%

3.

ABC

3,867

-6%

4.

Fox

3,233

-14%

5.

Fox News Channel

2,369

-1%

6.

ESPN

1,877

+14%

7.

Univision

1,315

-9%

8.

MSNBC

1,197

-22%

9.

HGTV

1,081

-13%

10.

Hallmark Channel 

1,034

-9%

11.

Ion

1,023

-2%

12.

TLC

971

-6%

13.

TNT

965

-12%

14.

Telemundo

933

-10%

15.

TBS

875

-15%

16.

History

836

-10%

17.

Discovery Channel

821

-11%

18.

Food Network

779

-6%

19.

INSP

778

-1%

20.

USA Network

738

-13%

21.

CNN

735

-34%

22.

Me TV

688

-8%

23.

Bravo

595

-16%

24.

Lifetime

589

-15%

25.

The CW

574

-29%

26.

Investigation Discovery

566

-12%

27.

TV Land

521

0%

28.

A&E

508

-10%

29.

Hallmark Movie & Mysteries 

492

-15%

30.

Paramount Network

491

+8%

31.

UniMás 

489

-8%

32.

AMC

468

-8%

33.

FX

462

-9%

34.

Grit

433

+5%

35.

WE TV 

428

-7%

36.

Game Show Network

361

-8%

37.

Syfy

359

-17%

BET 

359

-2%

39.

National Geographic

356

-16%

40.

Travel Channel 

336

-9%

41.

ESPN 2

335

+8%

42.

Oxygen 

331

+10%

43.

Freeform

301

-32%

44.

MTV

288

-28%

45.

Nickelodeon

287

-14%

46.

Animal Planet

286

-19%

47.

Nick at Nite

283

-21%

48.

Fox Sports 1

273

-7%

49.

Comedy Central

266

-13%

50.

Bounce TV

254

0%

51.

Reelzchannel

252

+107%

52.

HBO

250

0%

53.

FXX

246

+23%

54.

Adult Swim

245

-37%

55.

VH1

241

-6%

56.

Family Entertainment TV

240

+14%

57.

SundanceTV

238

+11%

58.

LMN

237

-2%

59.

E!

232

-21%

60.

IFC

223

+12%

61.

CMT

217

-10%

62.

OWN

213

-10%

Motor Trend

213

-1%

64.

HLN

211

-12%

65.

NFL Network

207

-33%

Start TV

207

-5%

67.

Magnolia Network

203

+13%

68.

Cozi

202

+6%

69.

CNBC

196

-10%

70.

BBC America 

190

-9%

71.

Ion Mystery

185

+13%

72.

Science

184

-22%

Newsmax TV

184

-2%

74.

Disney Junior

183

-29%

75.

Nat Geo Wild

181

-21%

Cartoon Network

181

-12%

77.

Disney Channel

178

-25%

78.

Heroes and Icons

172

-10%

79.

Nick Jr.

169

-27%

80.

Weather Channel

160

-14%

81.

Tru TV

147

-25%

82.

Laff 

146

+2%

83.

TUDN

135

-23%

84.

Pop TV

128

-20%

85.

Up

117

-11%

86.

Antenna TV

115

-19%

87.

Estrella TV

106

-21%

88.

TV One

104

-5%

89.

Comet

99

-1%

90.

Cooking Channel

98

-18%

Smithsonian

98

-8%

92.

Defy TV

97

n/a

93.

MLB Network

96

-12%

94.

Golf Channel

94

-18%

95.

Showtime

92

-29%

96.

Hallmark Drama 

90

-19%

NBA TV 

90

+5%

98.

FYI

87

-2%

99.

Starz  

83

+17%

100.

Galavisión

82

-23%

101.

FX Movie Channel

80

-12%

 

Charge!

80

-1%

103.

Great American Family

79

+22%

104.

Big Ten Network

75

+23%

105.

Viceland

71

-14%

106.

Nicktoons

65

-2%

107.

Discovery En Español

63

+11%

 

Fox Business Network

63

+17%

 

Newsnation

63

+37%

110.

Dabl

59

+28%

111.

Court TV

58

+7%

112.

Universo

57

-15%

113.

Telexitos

56

+4%

114.

American Heroes

55

-25%

 

Ovation

55

-18%

MTV 2

55

+4%

117.

Starz Encore

54

-5%

118.

Disney XD

53

-36%

119.

Boomerang

52

-32%

Destination America

52

-20%

121.

RFD-TV

50

-14%

Tennis Network

50

0%

123.

ESPN U 

49

-11%

124.

Azteca

47

+2%

125.

BET Her

44

+13

126.

Teennick

43

+19%

 

True Real

43

n/a

128.

AXS TV

42

-13%

129.

Fox Deportes 

41

-9%

Logo

41

0%

Story Television 

41

n/a

132.

Discovery Family Channel

38

-14%

133.

TBD TV

31

-31%

134.

Outdoor Channel

30

n/a

135.

Discovery Life Channel

28

-18%

Cinemax

28

-3%

137.

ESPN Deportes

27

+4%

138.

The Cowboy Channel

24

+4%

139.

Universal Kids

23

-34%

140.

Discovery Familia

20

-41%

141.

Olympic Channel

19

-21%

Fox Sports 2

19

-10%

143.

Baby First TV

18

-14%

144.

Nat Geo Mundo

17

-6%

145.

NBC Sports Network

15

-95%

CNN En Español

15

0%

147.

Galanovelas

14

n/a

148.

Cleo TV

13

+44%

149.

Justice Central

11

-15%

150.

Accuweather

9

+29%

Sportsman Channel

9

n/a

152.

Fuse

8

-38%

153.

BEIN Sport Español

4

-33%

NBCLX

4

-20%

Black News Channel

4

0%

Comedy TV

4

0%

157.

BEIN Sport

3

0%

158.

Pursuit Channel

2

-75%

159.

G4

1

n/a

Source: Nielsen, NPM (12/27/2021-12/4/2022, Live+7 and 12/5/2022-12/18/2022, Live+SD vs. 12/28/2020-12/5/2021, Live+7 and 12/6/2021-12/19/2021, Live+SD) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm, ad-supported and premium pay networks. Nat Geo Mundo based on NPM-H. Ranked by 2022 Year-To-Date.

THE 50 TOP-RATED NETWORKS OF 2022 (BY ADULTS 18-49)

Rank

NETWORK

18-49 VIEWERS (000)

% CHANGE

1.

NBC

1,176

-13%

2.

Fox

902

-23%

3.

ABC

864

-12%

4.

CBS

811

-22%

5.

ESPN

702

+13%

6.

Univision

522

-8%

7.

TNT

383

-18%

8.

Telemundo

337

-17%

9.

TBS

299

-20%

10.

TLC 

264

-14%

11.

Bravo

231

-21%

12.

USA Network

224

-25%

13.

Fox News Channel

218

-9%

14.

Food Network

205

-22%

15.

Unimás

198

-15%

16.

Discovery Channel

194

-20%

17.

HGTV

188

-22%

18.

Ion

178

-21%

19.

FX

170

-16%

20.

Comedy Central

153

-15%

21.

A&E

149

-14%

22.

MTV 

146

-38%

23.

History

143

-27%

24.

Hallmark Channel

140

-6%

25.

FXX

139

+23%

26.

Adult Swim

136

-40%

Freeform

136

-30%

28.

AMC

133

-18%

29.

The CW

128

-45%

30.

Investigation Discovery

128

-21%

31.

CNN

126

-35%

Paramount Network

126

-7%

33.

Nick at Nite

122

-19%

34.

Lifetime

119

-27%

35.

BET  

114

-15%

36.

VH1 

110

-17%

ESPN 2

110

+8%

38.

Nickelodeon

103

-14%

39.

Syfy

102

-26%

40.

WE TV 

90

-21%

41.

E!

86

-30%

42.

MSNBC

85

-40%

43.

TV Land

83

-11%

44.

Fox Sports 1

79

-14%

45.

Tru TV

76

-30%

Cartoon Network

76

-7%

47.

Travel Channel

73

-20%

48.

TUDN

69

-26%

49.

National Geographic

67

-28%

50.

NFL Network

64

-42%

Source: Nielsen, NPM (12/27/2021-12/4/2022, Live+7 and 12/5/2022-12/18/2022, Live+SD vs. 12/28/2020-12/5/2021, Live+7 and 12/6/2021-12/19/2021, Live+SD) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm, ad-supported and premium pay networks. Nat Geo Mundo based on NPM-H. Ranked by 2022 Year-To-Date.

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