Top 100 Telecasts of 2021: ‘NCIS,’ ‘Yellowstone,’ NFL Dominate, as Oscars Fail to Make the Cut

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Without fail, the Academy Awards always winds up as one of the top 10 most-watched telecasts of the year in primetime. Until 2021. In a stunner, the Oscars didn’t even make this year’s list of the entire top 100.

That’s a tremendous fall from grace for the ceremony, which in 2020 was TV’s No. 2 entertainment telecast, with 24.3 million viewers — behind only the post-Super Bowl airing of “The Masked Singer.” This year’s plunge to 10.7 million viewers puts it way down on the full list. Besides sports, that means more people watched 21 different episodes of “NCIS,” nine episodes of “FBI,” seven episodes of “60 Minutes,” five episodes of “Yellowstone,“ four episodes of “The Equalizer” and one episode each of “Law & Order: SVU” and “Law & Order: Organized Crime“ than watched the Oscars.

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Oh, and two CBS specials did better than the Oscars, too: “Oprah With Meghan and Harry” and “Adele One Night Only.”

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

This is, of course, an awards show problem, not just an Oscars problem. The Grammy Awards and the Golden Globes, which made the top 100 list in 2020, are nowhere to be found in 2021. (Read one idea about how to revive the Oscars — and hopefully get back on this list in 2022 — here.)

But it’s also a larger commentary on the state of what viewers are watching, in primetime, on linear TV in the 2020s. It’s sports. The NFL, beginning with the Super Bowl at No. 1, holds 39 of the 100 slots for top telecasts of the year, making football once again the most popular show on TV.

The Summer Olympics, delayed a year due to the pandemic, landed 14 spots for NBC, while the World Series picked up three, NCAA basketball scored two, college football also had two and the NBA Finals secured one slot.

Among scripted fare, while other shows come and go (like the once-dominant “The Walking Dead”), “NCIS” continues to dominate, this year with 17 slots. followed by “FBI” (seven) and newcomer “The Equalizer” (four), all on CBS. Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone” was the only cable entertainment show to make the cut this year, with two episodes. “60 Minutes” landed a healthy five positions, while comedy and reality shows didn’t make it into the top 100 at all this year.

CBS led this year’s total viewer telecast ranker with 39 programs (up from 27 last year), followed by NBC with 35 (vs. 37 last year), then Fox (13), ESPN (10), Paramount Network (2) and ABC (1).

Here are some of the programming highs and lows of 2021:

HIGHS

“Squid Game”
Although not technically a part of what we’re discussing here, it’s hard to deny the power of “Squid Game.” Netflix’s dystopic South Korean thriller has dominated the pop culture zeitgeist since its worldwide debut on Sept. 17. The K-drama, starring Lee Jung-jae (Gi-hun), Park Hae-soo (Sang-woo) and Jung Ho-yeon (Sae-byeok), is apparently the most-watched series in Netflix’s history — pulling in 1.65 billion hours of viewing in the 28 days since its premiere, spending 13 consecutive weeks on Netflix’s Top 10 list for non-English television series, and consistently reappearing on Nielsen’s SVOD Top 10 lists for original programming. Creator, writer and director Hwang Dong-hyuk knew it would do well regionally, but he never imagined that a harsh critique of capitalism under the guise of a macabre take on a children’s game would appeal to audiences at this scale. “Squid Game” won a People’s Choice Award, won a Gotham Award in the breakthrough long-form series category, and has received multiple 2022 Critics Choice Awards and Golden Globes nods. Per Netflix Head of Global TV Bela Bajaria, the “Squid Game” effect has made U.S. viewing of South Korean series on the streamer shoot up by 200%, and the momentum has led to other Korean-language hits on Netflix, including “Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha,” “Hellbound” and “Sweet Home.”

“Yellowstone”
Kevin Costner has become one of the hottest TV stars of 2021, thanks to his portrayal of grisly Montana gazillionaire rancher and patriarch John Dutton on Paramount Network’s “Yellowstone.” What started as a sleeper hit from Taylor Sheridan has become a juggernaut, returning to TV after more than a yearlong absence with a two-part Season 4 premiere that soared to 14.7 million viewers in Nielsen’s L3 ratings — without any boost from streaming. And the neo-Western ensemble drama’s Sunday primetime ratings have continued to be consistently high throughout the season. Given that “Yellowstone” is technically in competition with the enduringly popular “Sunday Night Football” telecast, the fact that the show pulls in more than 7 million viewers in Nielsen’s time-adjusted Live + Same Day ratings — perhaps even appealing to many of the same viewers — is a tremendous feat.

“NCIS”
Now in its 19th season, the popularity of the long-running CBS series remains a juggernaut. Even as Mark Harmon departed the show full-time this fall, the drama’s first 15 seasons remain a hit for Netflix, where they can be streamed. And as mentioned above, 17 episodes of the series made it on to the top telecasts of 2021 ranker. While most series come and go, ”NCIS” appears to be forever.

MIXED

Fall TV
A year after the pandemic scrambled everything, fall TV returned to some semblance of normalcy, featuring the usual mix of highly anticipated franchise extensions (“NCIS: Hawai’i,” “FBI: International”), reimaginations (“The Wonder Years,” “The Big Leap”), reboots (“4400”) and creative singing competition formats (“Alter Ego”). And as usual, there were a mix of ratings flops and surprising victors. In cable, FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story” faced a disappointing audience turnout and little to no buzz, in spite of strong acting from Beanie Feldstein and Sarah Paulson, while “Yellowstone” has become a smash for Paramount Network, in spite of it receiving little fanfare from TV critics.

LOWS

Awards Shows
Like we mentioned above, the glitziest televised ceremonies in the industry were awarded the prize for biggest ratings nightmares of 2021. February’s Golden Globes bombed 62.3% compared with the previous year’s show; in March, the Grammys nosedived 53% compared with 2020; and then the Oscars in April spiraled downward 58% compared with last year. While the Emmys in September and the American Music Awards in November reversed a pattern of steady declines, most award shows this year couldn’t win back audiences that have stopped watching what were once guaranteed ratings hits. Perhaps the combination of Zoom- and virtual- (or hybrid-) ceremony fatigue was partly to blame, but these shows are becoming more irrelevant and outdated to audiences, especially younger viewers. And because many of the shows had COVID-19 restrictions, not even fashionistas could enjoy a memorable outfit or two on the red carpet. When Jason Sudeikis’ tie-dye sweatshirt at the Golden Globes is the most-talked-about look, style is a dud.

“Y The Last Man”/“Cowboy Bebop”
FX began developing “Y: The Last Man,” based on the comic book series from Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, all the way back in 2015. The show went through years of development, including a showrunner shift, a title tweak, cast changes, a platform swap (from FX to FX on Hulu) and then COVID-19 production shutdowns. Finally, “Y: The Last Man” debuted, at long last, on Sept. 13. It was canceled a month later. Meanwhile, “Cowboy Bebop” was first announced as a live-action adaptation of the anime series in 2017 and picked up by Netflix in 2018. Production began the following year, but was halted after star John Cho was injured. And then the pandemic further delayed things. The show finally debuted in November. It was canceled in less than a month. Due to the fickle nature of streaming data, we’ll never really know what stats convinced FX on Hulu and Netflix to pull those plugs so fast.

Here’s our ratings roundup of the year’s most-watched telecasts (in Live+7 ratings), according to broadcast and cable measurements, in both total viewers and adults 18-49.

[For historical record, here are previous year-end telecast rankers: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015.]

MOST-WATCHED PRIMETIME TELECASTS OF 2021 (TOTAL VIEWERS)

Rank

PROGRAM (NETWORK)

VIEWERS (by millions)

DATE AIRED

1.

Super Bowl LV: Tampa Bay vs. Kansas City (CBS)

92.877

2/7/2021

2.

AFC Championship: Kansas City vs. Buffalo (CBS)

42.501

1/24/2021

3.

NFL Divisional Playoff: Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans (Fox)

36.467

1/17/2021

4.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Tampa Bay vs. New England (NBC)

27.088

10/3/2021

5.

AFC Divisional Playoff: Buffalo vs. Baltimore (NBC)

26.495

1/16/2021

6.

AFC Wildcard Playoff: Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh (NBC)

25.038

1/10/2021

7.

NFL Thursday Special: Tampa Bay vs. Dallas (NBC)

25.010

9/9/2021

8.

The Equalizer (Post-Super Bowl Series Premiere) (CBS)

23.757

2/7/2021

9.

Oprah With Meghan & Harry (CBS)

21.764

3/7/2021

10.

NFC Wildcard Playoff: Tampa Bay vs. Washington (NBC)

21.587

1/9/2021

11.

NFL Thursday Night Football: Arizona vs. Green Bay (Fox/NFL Network)

20.485

10/28/2021

12.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Kansas City vs. Baltimore (NBC)

20.042

9/19/2021

13.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Green Bay vs. San Francisco (NBC)

19.834

9/26/2021

14.

NFL Thursday Thanksgiving Special: New Orleans vs. Buffalo (NBC)

19.469

11/25/2021

15.

College Football Playoff Semifinal (Sugar Bowl): Ohio State vs. Clemson (ESPN)

19.007

1/1/2021

16.

College Football Championship: Ohio State vs. Alabama (ESPN)

18.645

1/11/2021

17.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Chicago vs. LA Rams (NBC)

17.710

9/12/2021

18.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Buffalo vs. Kansas City (NBC)

17.661

10/10/2021

19.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Denver vs. Kansas City (NBC)

17.660

12/5/2021

20.

Summer Olympics Sunday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

17.446

7/25/2021

21.

NCAA Basketball Championship: Baylor vs. Gonzaga (CBS)

17.029

4/5/2021

22.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Kansas City vs. Las Vegas (NBC)

16.921

11/14/2021

23.

NFL Thursday Night Football: Dallas vs. New Orleans (Fox/NFL Network)

16.882

12/2/2021

24.

Summer Olympics Thursday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

16.833

7/29/2021

25.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Washington vs. Philadelphia (NBC)

16.692

1/3/2021

26.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Seattle vs. Pittsburgh (NBC)

16.391

10/17/2021

27.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Cleveland vs. Baltimore (NBC)

16.341

11/28/2021

28.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Indianapolis vs. San Francisco (NBC)

16.229

10/24/2021

29.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Dallas vs. Minnesota (NBC)

15.869

10/31/2021

30.

60 Minutes: Nancy Pelosi on the 1/6 Coup Attempt (CBS)

15.730

1/10/2021

31.

Summer Olympics Monday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

15.176

7/26/2021

32.

Summer Olympics Tuesday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

15.072

7/27/2021

33.

NCAA Basketball Final Four: Gonzaga vs. UCLA (CBS)

15.039

4/3/2021

34.

NFL Thursday Night Football: LA Rams vs. Seattle (Fox/NFL Network)

14.895

10/7/2021

35.

Summer Olympics Tuesday Prime Week 2 (NBC)

14.781

8/3/2021

36.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Pittsburgh vs. LA Chargers (NBC)

14.697

11/21/2021

37.

NFL Thursday Night Football: Tampa Bay vs. Philadelphia (Fox/NFL Network)

14.546

10/14/2021

38.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Tennessee vs. LA Rams (NBC)

14.311

11/7/2021

39.

Summer Olympics Monday Prime Week 2 (NBC)

14.088

8/2/2021

40.

World Series Game 6: Atlanta vs. Houston (Fox)

14.038

11/2/2021

41.

World Series Game 5: Atlanta vs. Houston (Fox)

13.694

10/31/2021

42.

NFL Thursday Night Football: New England vs. Atlanta (Fox/NFL Network)

13.663

11/18/2021

43.

Summer Olympics Sunday Prime Week 2 (NBC)

13.470

8/1/2021

44.

60 Minutes: Freight Expectations, Andrew Sullivan (CBS)

13.275

11/14/2021

45.

NCIS, S18E9 “Winter Chill” (CBS)

13.138

3/9/2021

46.

NCIS, S18E7 “The First Day” (CBS)

13.122

2/9/2021

47.

NFL Thursday Night Football: Denver vs. Cleveland (Fox/NFL Network)

13.103

10/21/2021

48.

NCIS, S18E11 “Gut Punch” (CBS)

13.082

4/6/2021

49.

NFL Monday Night Football: Dallas vs. Philadelphia (ESPN)

13.071

9/27/2021

50.

Summer Olympics Saturday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

13.065

7/24/2021

51.

NCIS, S18E6 “1 mm” (CBS)

13.064

1/26/2021

52.

NFL Thursday Night Football: Baltimore vs. Miami (Fox/NFL Network)

13.025

11/11/2021

53.

NCIS, S18E10 “Watchdog” (CBS)

12.994

3/16/2021

54.

NCIS, S18E8 “True Believer” (CBS)

12.789

3/2/2021

55.

Summer Olympics Wednesday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

12.773

7/28/2021

56.

NCIS, S18E4 “Sunburn” (CBS)

12.700

1/19/2021

57.

NFL Monday Night Football: New England vs. Atlanta (ESPN)

12.666

10/18/2021

58.

NBA Finals Game 6: Phoenix vs. Milwaukee (ABC)

12.634

7/20/2021

59.

NCIS, S19E1 “Blood in the Water” (CBS)

12.463

9/20/2021

60.

NFL Monday Night Football: Las Vegas vs. LA Chargers (ESPN)

12.446

10/4/2021

61.

NCIS, S18E13 “Misconduct” (CBS)

12.441

5/4/2021

62.

Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony (NBC)

12.300

7/23/2021

63.

NCIS, S18E5 “Head of the Snake” (CBS)

12.297

1/19/2021

64.

NFL Monday Night Football: Chicago vs. Pittsburgh (ESPN)

12.226

11/8/2021

65.

Summer Olympics Friday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

12.108

7/30/2021

66.

NFL Monday Night Football: NY Giants vs. Kansas City (ESPN)

12.100

11/1/2021

67.

NCIS, S18E16 “Rule 91”(CBS)

12.096

5/25/2021

68.

NCIS, S19E2 “Nearly Departed” (CBS)

12.044

9/27/2021

69.

Adele: One Night Only (CBS)

12.036

11/14/2021

70.

NFL Monday Night Football: Detroit vs. Green Bay (ESPN)

12.017

9/20/2021

71.

NCIS, S18E14 “Unseen Improvements” (CBS)

11.956

5/11/2021

72.

NCIS, S19E3 “Road to Nowhere” (CBS)

11.879

10/4/2021

73.

The Equalizer, S1E2 “Glory” (CBS)

11.861

2/14/2021

74.

NCIS, S18E15 “Blown Away” (CBS)

11.819

5/18/2021

75.

Big Ten Football Championship Game: Michigan vs. Iowa (Fox)

11.748

12/4/2021

76.

NFL Thursday Night Football: NY Jets vs. Indianapolis (Fox/NFL Network)

11.746

11/4/2021

77.

60 Minutes: Robert Gates, Green River Drift (CBS)

11.611

10/17/2021

78.

FBI, S3E4 “Crazy Love” (CBS)

11.569

1/24/2021

79.

Law & Order: SVU, S22E9 “Return of the Prodigal Son” (NBC)

11.533

4/1/2021

80.

The Equalizer, S1E3 “Judgment Day” (CBS)

11.524

2/21/2021

81.

NFL Monday Night Football: Indianapolis vs. Baltimore (ESPN)

11.461

10/11/2021

FBI, S3E9, “Leverage” (CBS)

11.461

3/16/2021

83.

NCIS, S19E5 “Face the Strange” (CBS)

11.429

10/18/2021

84.

Law & Order: Organized Crime, S1E1 “What Happens in Puglia” (NBC)

11.408

4/1/2021

85.

Yellowstone, S4E5 “Under a Blanket of Red” (Paramount)

11,379

11/28/2021

86.

NCIS, S19 E4 “Great Wide Open” (CBS)

11.355

10/11/2021

87.

Summer Olympics Thursday Prime Week 2 (NBC)

11.328

8/5/2021

88.

Summer Olympics Thursday Prime Week 2 (NBC)

11.299

8/4/2021

89.

NFL Monday Night Football: New Orleans vs. Seattle (ESPN)

11.286

10/25/2021

90.

World Series Game 3: Atlanta vs. Houston (Fox)

11.275

10/29/2021

91.

FBI, S3E5 “Clean Slate” (CBS)

11.270

1/26/2021

92.

60 Minutes: Jan. 6 Insurrection; Alex Smith (CBS)

11.265

1/17/2021

93.

Yellowstone, S4E2 “Phantom Pain” (Paramount)

11.238

11/7/2021

94.

The Equalizer, S1E4 “It Takes a Village” (CBS)

11.195

2/28/2021

95.

FBI, S3E10 “Checks and Balances” (CBS)

11.187

4/6/2021

96.

FBI, S3E12 “Fathers and Sons” (CBS)

11.172

5/4/2021

97.

FBI, S3E6 “Uncovered” (CBS)

11.159

2/9/2021

98.

Summer Olympics Saturday Prime Week 2 (NBC)

11.155

7/31/2021

99.

60 Minutes: Michael Keaton, Prince vs. Spy (CBS)

11.145

10/24/2021

100.

FBI, S3E8 “Walk the Line” (CBS)

11.120

3/9/2021

Source: Nielsen, 1/1/21 – 12/5/21. L7 Data. All Telecasts, Broadcast and Cable (excluding telecasts with durations under 25 min, including SB and NFC). Broadcast Prime, telecast with start times within daypart (M-Sat 8P-11P; Sun 6:30P-11P).

THE 50 TOP-RATED PRIMETIME TELECASTS OF 2021 (ADULTS 18-49)

Rank

PROGRAM (NETWORK)

RATING (18-49)

DATE AIRED

1.

Super Bowl LV: Tampa Bay vs. Kansas City (CBS)

26.99

2/7/2021

2.

AFC Championship: Kansas City vs. Buffalo (CBS)

12.10

1/24/2021

3.

NFL Divisional Playoff: Tampa Bay vs. New Orleans (Fox)

10.38

1/17/2021

4.

NFL Thursday Special: Tampa Bay vs. Dallas (NBC)

7.61

9/9/2021

5.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Tampa Bay vs. New England (NBC)

7.46

10/3/2021

6.

AFC Divisional Playoff: Buffalo vs. Baltimore (NBC)

7.38

1/16/2021

AFC Wildcard Playoff: Cleveland vs. Pittsburgh (NBC)

7.38

1/10/2021

8.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Kansas City vs. Baltimore (NBC)

5.99

9/19/2021

NFC Wildcard Playoff: Tampa Bay vs. Washington (NBC)

5.99

1/9/2021

10.

NFL Thursday Thanksgiving Special: New Orleans vs. Buffalo (NBC)

5.67

11/25/2021

11.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Green Bay vs. San Francisco (NBC)

5.64

9/26/2021

12.

NFL Thursday Night Football: Arizona vs. Green Bay (Fox/NFL Network)

5.63

10/28/2021

13.

The Equalizer (Post-Super Bowl Series Premiere) (CBS)

5.58

2/7/2021

14.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Chicago vs. LA Rams (NBC)

5.36

9/12/2021

15.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Buffalo vs. Kansas City (NBC)

5.20

10/10/2021

16.

College Football Championship: Ohio State vs. Alabama (ESPN)

5.19

1/11/2021

17.

College Football Playoff Semifinal (Sugar Bowl): Ohio State vs. Clemson (ESPN)

5.07

1/1/2021

18.

NFL Thursday Night Football: Dallas vs. New Orleans (Fox/NFL Network)

4.81

12/2/2021

19.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Denver vs. Kansas City (NBC)

4.67

12/5/2021

20.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Washington vs. Philadelphia (NBC)

4.66

1/3/2021

21.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Seattle vs. Pittsburgh (NBC)

4.60

10/17/2021

22.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Kansas City vs. Las Vegas (NBC)

4.59

11/14/2021

23.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Cleveland vs. Baltimore (NBC)

4.56

11/28/2021

24.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Dallas vs. Minnesota (NBC)

4.38

10/31/2021

25.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Indianapolis vs. San Francisco (NBC)

4.37

10/24/2021

26.

NBA Finals Game 6: Phoenix vs. Milwaukee (ABC)

4.29

7/20/2021

27.

Summer Olympics Sunday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

4.19

7/25/2021

NFL Thursday Night Football: LA Rams vs. Seattle (Fox/NFL Network)

4.19

10/7/2021

29.

NFL Monday Night Football: Dallas vs. Philadelphia (ESPN)

4.14

9/27/2021

30.

NCAA Basketball Championship: Baylor vs. Gonzaga (CBS)

4.13

4/5/2021

31.

NFL Thursday Night Football: Tampa Bay vs. Philadelphia (Fox/NFL Network)

4.12

10/14/2021

32.

NFL Monday Night Football: New England vs. Atlanta (ESPN)

4.10

10/18/2021

33.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Tennessee vs. LA Rams (NBC)

4.04

11/7/2021

34.

NFL Monday Night Football: Detroit vs. Green Bay (ESPN)

3.89

9/20/2021

35.

NFL Sunday Night Football: Pittsburgh vs. LA Chargers (NBC)

3.85

11/21/2021

36.

Summer Olympics Thursday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

3.79

7/29/2021

NFL Monday Night Football: Las Vegas vs. LA Chargers (ESPN)

3.79

10/4/2021

38.

NFL Thursday Night Football: Denver vs. Cleveland (Fox/NFL Network)

3.74

10/21/2021

NFL Thursday Night Football: New England vs. Atlanta (Fox/NFL Network)

3.74

11/18/2021

40.

NCAA Basketball Final Four: Gonzaga vs. UCLA (CBS)

3.67

4/3/2021

41.

Oprah With Meghan & Harry (CBS)

3.63

3/7/2021

NFL Thursday Night Football: Baltimore vs. Miami (Fox/NFL Network)

3.63

11/11/2021

43.

Summer Olympics Monday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

3.60

7/26/2021

44.

Summer Olympics Tuesday Prime Week 1 (NBC)

3.58

7/27/2021

45.

NFL Monday Night Football: Indianapolis vs. Baltimore (ESPN)

3.51

10/11/2021

46.

NBA Finals Game 4: Phoenix vs. Milwaukee (ABC)

3.48

7/14/2021

47.

NFL Monday Night Football: Chicago vs. Pittsburgh (ESPN)

3.47

11/8/2021

48.

World Series Game 6: Atlanta vs. Houston (Fox)

3.38

11/2/2021

49.

NFL Monday Night Football: NY Giants vs. Kansas City (ESPN)

3.34

11/1/2021

50.

NFL Thursday Night Football: NY Jets vs. Indianapolis (Fox/NFL Network)

3.26

11/4/2021

Source: Nielsen, 1/1/21 – 12/5/21. L7 Data. All Telecasts, Broadcast and Cable (excluding telecasts with durations under 25 min, including SB and NFC). Broadcast Prime, telecast with start times within daypart (M-Sat 8P-11P; Sun 6:30P-11P).

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