Most-Watched Television Networks: Ranking 2021’s Winners and Losers

·10-min read

A tally of the year’s most-watched TV networks seems wildly incomplete in the 2020s without Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Disney Plus or HBO Max in the mix. But with no real apples-to-apples way of comparing viewership on the streaming platforms to linear consumption, we’ll continue to measure them in different ways, at least for now.

In the land of the linear, sports continue to save the day, helping stabilize viewership this year for at least two of the four major broadcast networks. On the flip side, COVID be damned, a year without a contentious political season left most of the news networks with massive declines. Double-digit dips remain the reality for most of the basic and premium networks — a trend that becomes more acute as even those networks’ owners eagerly shoo viewers away from that old-fashioned delivery system and on to their newfangled streaming services.

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Here, Variety recounts who was up and who was down in 2021.

WINNERS

Sports Networks
Live sports were back in full force in 2021, and viewers hungry for action lapped it up — making sports networks one of the few bright spots in this year’s network tallies. ESPN led all, of course, up 11% to an average of 1.6 million viewers in primetime. Also on the rise was TNT (10%) — not a sports network per se, but clearly helped by NBA coverage and March Madness. ESPN2 jumped 48%, Fox Sports 1 was up 25%, and even the about-to-be-shuttered NBC Sports Network saw a 17% gain. The leagues’ own networks — NFL (up 32%), MLB (45%) and NBA (71%) — rose as well. Even niche pursuits gained, including Golf (+12%) and Tennis (+34%).

CBS and NBC
Here’s something you just don’t see any more: Not one, but two broadcast networks managed not to decline vs. 2020. As a matter of fact, NBC ended 2021 up 9% in total viewers and up 7% in adults 18-49, while CBS was flat in viewers and up 1% in 18-49. (These days, being flat is a tremendous win.) Once again, sports helped: CBS had the Super Bowl, while NBC aired the delayed Summer Olympics and plenty of “Sunday Night Football.” Also in broadcast, Univision (down 1% in viewers, down 3% in 18-49) and Telemundo (up 3% in viewers, down 3% in 18-49) managed to mostly hold their own. Meanwhile, looking at just fall, Fox pulled ahead in adults 18-49 (1.4) to rank tops in season to date ratings, ahead of NBC (1.3), CBS (0.8) and ABC (0.8).

INSP
It’s become an annual tradition to marvel at the growth of INSP. A small, independent cabler that began life as the religious PTL Network, the network later morphed into “Inspiration” before eventually settling into INSP, now with a core focus on Westerns. “We think that the Western-based and Western-adjacent content really just continues to resonate,” said INSP COO Dale Ardizzone. “Obviously the linear business is morphing and we’re all watching how and where that lands. But I think we start with being very proud that for seven consecutive years we have actually increased ratings over the previous year. And from what our research tells us, we’re one of the only networks that has had that sort of consistent growth. Believe it or not, since 2010, our household ratings are up 1,171%. Which obviously is huge.”

LOSERS

News and Opinion Networks
What a difference a year makes. Last year, the newsies were among the winners. This year, with no bombastic election cycle, and with COVID-19 coverage not as prevalent as it was before vaccines were developed, the major news channels and opinion networks faced deep dips in 2021. That goes for Fox News (down 34%, although still tops in cable), MSNBC (-28%) and CNN (-38%). Business channels experienced similar slumps: Fox Business Network was down 48%, while CNBC was off 13%. The one exception to this trend, apparently, is right-wing Newsmax, which increased 48% (granted, from low marks to begin with), and we could say why that might be — but, c’mon, you know whose cult-like fan base is looking for like-minded “news” content.

Network rebrands: NewsNation and GAC Family
Two of the year’s biggest brand overalls were not well received by viewers. WGN America morphed into the mostly-news-and-opinion NewsNation, and collapsed 79%, from 223,000 viewers to 46,000 in primetime. And GAC Family, which had its roots as Great American Country but more recently had been the lifestyle-oriented GAC, turned into a home for Hallmark-like general entertainment fare — and dropped 33%.

The Cowboy Channel
A bit of a mystery to this one, the network bolstered its coverage of live rodeos this year yet saw its viewership drop a dramatic 77%. It doesn’t appear as if the network lost any major distribution; perhaps the Nielsen sample simply lost several rodeo fans in 2021?

Below are the primetime rankers for broadcast, cable and premium cable networks in 2021, 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: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.]

THE MOST-WATCHED NETWORKS OF 2021 (BY TOTAL VIEWERS)

Rank

NETWORK

VIEWERS (000)

% CHANGE

1.

CBS

5,574

0%

2.

NBC

5,484

+9%

3.

ABC

4,077

-10%

4.

Fox

3,683

-12%

5.

Fox News Channel

2,394

-34%

6.

ESPN

1,618

+11%

7.

MSNBC

1,537

-28%

8.

Univision

1,432

-1%

9.

HGTV

1,243

-9%

10.

Hallmark Channel

1,115

-7%

11.

CNN

1,114

-38%

12.

TNT

1,087

+10%

13.

Ion

1,044

-13%

14.

Telemundo

1,034

+3%

15.

TBS

1,026

-4%

TLC

1,026

-25%

17.

History

925

-12%

18.

Discovery Channel

920

-11%

19.

USA Network

848

-6%

20.

Food Network

820

-14%

21.

The CW

813

0%

22.

INSP

788

+17%

23.

Me TV

752

-2%

24.

Bravo

705

-13%

25.

Lifetime

690

+4%

26.

Investigation Discovery

640

-17%

27.

Hallmark Movies & Mysteries

579

-8%

28.

A&E

560

-32%

29.

UniMás

525

+9%

30.

TV Land

518

-9%

31.

AMC

504

-15%

FX

504

-12%

33.

WE TV

456

-4%

34.

Paramount Network

434

-7%

35.

Syfy

428

-5%

36.

Freeform

423

-16%

37.

National Geographic

421

+1%

38.

Grit

412

+4%

39.

MTV

399

-10%

40.

Game Show Network

394

-9%

41.

Adult Swim

386

-25%

42.

Travel Channel

371

-16%

43.

BET

365

-4%

44.

Nick at Nite

356

-19%

45.

Animal Planet

355

-14%

46.

Nickelodeon

335

-32%

47.

ESPN 2

304

+48%

48.

Comedy Central

301

-12%

49.

Oxygen

300

-4%

50.

Fox Sports 1

294

+25%

51.

NBC Sports Network

293

+17%

52.

E! Entertainment

292

-17%

53.

NFL Network

281

+32%

54.

Disney Junior

258

-17%

55.

VH1

255

-25%

56.

Bounce TV

252

-10%

57.

HBO

251

-36%

58.

LMN

242

-14%

59.

CMT

239

+3%

HLN

239

-10%

61.

Science Channel

236

-19%

62.

OWN

235

-22%

63.

Disney Channel

233

-35%

64.

Nick Jr.

232

-31%

65.

Nat Geo Wild

228

-17%

66.

Start TV

220

+37%

67.

CNBC

216

-13%

68.

Motor Trend

214

-14%

69.

Sundance TV

213

0%

70.

Family Entertainment TV

210

+3%

71.

BBC America

208

-13%

72.

Cartoon Network

201

-26%

73.

IFC

199

-3%

74.

FXX

198

-15%

75.

Tru TV

193

-2%

76.

Heroes and Icons

191

-8%

77.

Cozi

189

+14%

Newsmax TV

189

+48%

79.

Weather Channel

185

+4%

80.

DIY

179

-27%

81.

TUDN

176

+78%

82.

Court TV Mystery

163

+11%

83.

Pop TV

161

-23%

84.

Antenna TV

143

n/a

85.

Laff

142

-26%

86.

Estrella TV

134

-20%

87.

Up

131

-4%

88.

Showtime

130

-11%

89.

Reelzchannel

122

-5%

90.

Cooking Channel

119

-16%

91.

Golf Channel

113

+12%

92.

Hallmark Drama

111

-3%

93.

MLB Network

110

+45%

94.

Smithsonian Channel

109

-11%

TV One

109

-19%

96.

Galavisión

106

-18%

97.

Comet

100

+15%

98.

FX Movie Channel

91

-28%

99.

FYI

89

-28%

100.

NBA TV

84

+71%

101.

Disney XD

83

-13%

Vice TV

83

+11%

103.

Charge!

82

-20%

104.

Boomerang

77

-16%

105.

American Heroes

73

-25%

106.

Starz

70

-43%

107.

Nicktoons

67

-24%

Ovation Network

67

-3%

Universo

67

-22%

110.

Destination America

64

-31%

111.

GAC Family

63

-33%

112.

Big Ten Network

60

+5%

113.

RFD-TV

58

-25%

114.

Discovery En Español

57

-25%

Starz Encore

57

-22%

116.

Court TV

55

n/a

117.

ESPN U

54

+15%

Fox Business Network

54

-48%

Telexitos

54

+17%

120.

MTV 2

52

-5%

121.

Tennis Network

51

+34%

122.

AXS TV

48

-26%

123.

Azteca

46

-18%

Newsnation

46

-79%

125.

Dabl

45

n/a

Fox Deportes

45

+2%

TBD TV

45

+18%

128.

Discovery Family Channel

43

-25%

129.

Logo

41

-11%

130.

BET Her

38

-7%

131.

Teennick

37

-37%

132.

Universal Kids

35

+3%

133.

Discovery Familia

34

-17%

Discovery Life Channel

34

-39%

135.

Cinemax

29

-28%

136.

ESPN Deportes

26

-19%

137.

Olympic Channel

24

n/a

138.

The Cowboy Channel

23

-77%

139.

Baby First TV

21

-40%

Fox Sports 2

21

-22%

141.

Nat Geo Mundo

18

-28%

142.

CNN En Español

15

-40%

143.

Fuse

13

-41%

Justice Central

13

+18%

145.

Cleo TV

9

n/a

146.

Pursuit Channel

8

-33%

147.

Accuweather

7

n/a

148.

BEIN Sport Español

6

-33%

149.

Newsy

6

-25%

150.

NBCLX

5

-29%

151.

Black News Channel

4

n/a

152.

Comedy TV

4

+33%

153.

BEIN Sport

3

-40%

Source: Nielsen, NPM (12/28/2020-11/28/2021, Live+7 and 11/29/2021-12/12/2021, Live+SD vs. 12/30/2019-11/29/2020, Live+7 and 11/30/2020-12/13/2020, Live+SD) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm, ad-supported and premium pay networks. Nat Geo Mundo based on NPM-H. Ranked by 2021 Year-To-Date.

THE 50 TOP-RATED NETWORKS OF 2021 (BY ADULTS 18-49)

Rank

NETWORK

18-49 VIEWERS (000)

% CHANGE

1.

NBC

1,327

+7%

2.

Fox

1,136

-21%

3.

CBS

1,023

+1%

4.

ABC

964

-17%

5.

ESPN

608

-1%

6.

Univision

562

-3%

7.

TNT

458

+6%

8.

Telemundo

401

-3%

9.

TBS

370

-11%

10.

TLC

304

-33%

11.

USA Network

296

-12%

12.

Bravo

291

-16%

13.

Food Network

258

-21%

14.

Discovery

243

-20%

15.

HGTV

237

-20%

16.

Fox News Channel

235

-45%

MTV

235

-10%

18.

The CW

233

-9%

19.

Unimás

232

+1%

20.

Adult Swim

224

-28%

21.

Ion

223

-24%

22.

FX

198

-16%

23.

History

196

-18%

24.

CNN

194

-49%

25.

Freeform

187

-17%

26.

Comedy Central

177

-14%

27.

A&E

172

-41%

28.

Lifetime

163

-15%

29.

Investigation Discovery

161

-27%

30.

AMC

159

-24%

31.

Nick at Nite

150

-23%

32.

Hallmark Channel

144

-19%

33.

MSNBC

141

-42%

34.

Syfy

136

-16%

35.

BET

132

-10%

VH1

132

-29%

37.

Paramount Network

131

-17%

38.

E! Entertainment

122

-19%

39.

Nickelodeon

119

-27%

40.

WE TV

113

-20%

41.

FXX

112

-15%

42.

Tru TV

107

-12%

43.

ESPN 2

100

+41%

44.

NFL Network

100

+32%

45.

NBC Sports Network

97

+17%

46.

TUDN

93

+75%

47.

National Geographic

92

-12%

TV Land

92

-16%

49.

Disney Junior

91

-10%

50.

Fox Sports 1

90

+30%

Travel Channel

90

-35%

Source: Nielsen, NPM (12/28/2020-11/28/2021, Live+7 and 11/29/2021-12/12/2021, Live+SD vs. 12/30/2019-11/29/2020, Live+7 and 11/30/2020-12/13/2020, Live+SD) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm, ad-supported and premium pay networks. Nat Geo Mundo based on NPM-H. Ranked by 2021 Year-To-Date.

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