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Most-Watched Television Networks: Ranking 2018’s Winners and Losers

NBC is tops in all measures, thanks to the Super Bowl and Olympics, while Fox News is most-watched in cable.

2018’s ratings winners and losers

Rex/Shutterstock

IndieWire Best of 2018

A few years ago, the joke among network TV execs was that “flat is the new up” — meaning that you could tout victory if your network had managed to at least hold steady and not lose more viewers.

Those were innocent times. Now, with so many channels slipping year-to-year by double digits, perhaps “single digit declines are the new up” should now be the industry mantra. In 2018, TV strategists who are used to erosion were nonetheless stunned by how quickly younger viewers are disappearing from linear TV. “We’re seeing real accelerated declines in live viewing,” one research exec told IndieWire. “People are changing their behavior. Maybe people are watching more efficiently.” Nielsen doesn’t report on the people watching video on mobile phones, iPads and laptops, but there’s a sense that viewers are using different platforms to time shift their viewing, the way they used to use DVRs.

With a few notable exceptions, young-skewing networks, as you might expect, were hit hardest in 2018 — and that included the Spanish-language channels, as that diverse demographic tends to be younger.

It’s not all gloom and doom, however. Thanks to both the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl, NBC managed to increase its audience by 9 percent, making it the most-watched network of 2018 (taking the crown from CBS). And although advertisers may snub them, older viewers are helping propel a new generation of classic TV channels. “[Older adult viewing levels] are much more stable than younger demos,” the researcher said.

Other networks seeing viewership growth in 2018 included Fox News Channel (once again the most-watched cable network), MSNBC, Ion, TNT, Hallmark, TLC, A&E, Me TV, MTV, Travel Channel, Nat Geo, GSN, Oxygen, and Science Channel.

Here are some of the notable winners and losers from 2018:

HIGHS 

MTV: Written off as a has-been network a few years ago, MTV once again has a Situation on its hands. The return of the “Jersey Shore” crew has been part of a recipe for growth at the network, as “Jersey Shore Family Vacation” (now renewed for a third season) helped spark a ratings revival. Under president Chris McCarthy, who engineered the turnaround by tapping back into MTV’s late 2000s reality brand, the network was also helped by new hits such as “Floribama Shore,” “Ex on the Beach” and “Siesta Key.” As a result, viewership was up 13 percent in 2018, with adults 18-49 numbers up 17 percent.

Classic TV and repeats: As much as everyone talks about Peak TV and how much original scripted TV is currently being produced, an increasing number of viewers are instead gravitating toward the old stuff. Me TV, in particular, is continuing to grow as its roster of over-the-air stations gets stronger. The network has leaped over TV Land and is within striking distance of Nick at Nite — two networks that pioneered the “classic TV” format before focusing on more contemporary fare. Ion, which focuses on more recent procedural drama repeats, is also growing, as are some of the “diginets” that focus on library fare, including Laff and Escape.

NBC: The Peacock network aired five of the year’s top 10 telecasts, including Super Bowl LII — as always, the most-watched program of the year. But also on the list: The year’s top-rated entertainment broadcast, the Super Bowl lead-out edition of “This Is Us” (in which a Crockpot kills Jack Pearson); the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies; and the Nov. 4 Sunday Night Football game between New England and Green Bay. Of course, what goes up must come down: NBC will have to adjust to a 2019 without either the Big Game or the Olympic games.

TNT, A&E, TLC, Nat Geo, Oxygen: These are among the few major cable networks that managed to either stay flat or post increases among both total viewers and adults under 50. Given what’s going on in the business, that is an impressive feat.

LOWS

CNN: While Fox News and MSNBC posted slight ratings increases in 2018, CNN was down 6 percent. (All three cable news networks were down in the 18-49 demo, with CNN dipping the most.) Could it be that partisans are choosing either Fox News or MSNBC, leaving fewer in the middle? Could Donald Trump’s non-stop attacks on the channel be having an impact? Or are viewers tiring of Jeff Zucker’s steady diet of politics-as-sport, bringing on pundits to yell at each other — including truly terrible talking heads like Rick Santorum? Likely all of the above — but CNN could at least do something about that last reason.

Kids TV: It’s probably no surprise that the kid-targeted networks are being hurt the most as a new generation of kids ignore linear TV to either watch YouTube videos, play Fortnite, or binge TV on one of the streaming services. Nickelodeon was down 29 percent in 2018, while Cartoon Network is off a stunning 36 percent. (Cartoon’s older sibling Adult Swim, which targets 18-24-year-olds, is also off by 12 percent.) Disney Channel is commercial-free, and therefore not on this list, but its tween network Disney XD is down 23 percent. The lone bright spot? Disney Junior, the preschool network, leapfrogged over competitor Nick Jr. and is up by 4 percent.

“Family” TV: The only thing doing worse than networks geared towards kids are the networks attempting to reach the whole family. Sorry to say, there’s just no such thing as co-viewing anymore. Universal morphed its preschool network Sprout into Universal Kids — in the hopes of broadening its reach — but instead dived 73 percent. Discovery Family, which also attempts to reach kids and their parents, is down 46 percent.

Byron Allen: The comedian-turned-mogul bought the Weather Channel earlier this year for $300 million, just as the network — which had seen its ratings grow by 14 percent in 2017 — dropped back down by 20 percent. (This, despite a seemingly non-stop barrage of weather news.) Allen is also behind Comedy TV, which has the distinction of being the least-watched ad-supported network measured by Nielsen.

Here’s the ranker of almost every ad-supported broadcast and cable network in 2018 (with the exception of certain digital networks, as well as cable networks that aren’t measured by Nielsen), according to total viewers. (Below this chart, we also rank the year’s top 50 most-watched networks in the adults 18-49 category.)

THE MOST-WATCHED NETWORKS OF 2018 (BY TOTAL VIEWERS)

NETWORK

2018 VIEWERS

2017 VIEWERS

% CHANGE

1

NBC

7,876,000

7,224,000

+9%

2

CBS

7,385,000

7,975,000

-7%

3

ABC

5,423,000

5,595,000

-3%

4

Fox

4,401,000

4,701,000

-6%

5

Fox News Channel

2,481,000

2,419,000

+3%

6

MSNBC

1,789,000

1,607,000

+11%

7

ESPN

1,764,000

1,889,000

-7%

8

USA Network

1,518,000

1,661,000

-9%

9

HGTV

1,461,000

1,533,000

-5%

10

Univision

1,448,000

1,663,000

-13%

11

The CW

1,418,000

1,579,000

-10%

12

TBS

1,393,000

1,509,000

-8%

13

Ion

1,350,000

1,268,000

+6%

14

TNT

 1,323,000

1,316,000

+1%

15

History

1,239,000

1,326,000

-7%

16

Telemundo

1,216,000

1,385,000

-12%

17

Hallmark Channel

1,190,000

1,153,000

+3%

18

Discovery

1,178,000

1,354,000

-13%

19

Investigation Discovery

1,102,000

1,097,000

0%

20

TLC

1,066,000

972,000

+10%

21

A&E

1,013,000

987,000

+3%

22

CNN

986,000

1,049,000

-6%

23

Food Network

984,000

982,000

0%

24

Nickelodeon

932,000

1,315,000

-29%

25

AMC

921,000

1,078,000

-15%

26

FX

903,000

1,036,000

-13%

27

Bravo

879,000

920,000

-4%

28

Adult Swim

845,000

962,000

-12%

29

Nick at Nite

737,000

887,000

-17%

30

ME TV

702,000

617,000

+14%

31

Lifetime

699,000

838,000

-17%

32

MTV

655,000

578,000

+13%

33

TV Land

642,000

710,000

-10%

34

VH1

640,000

646,000

-1%

35

Freeform

621,000

744,000

-17%

36

Hallmark Movies & Mysteries

596,000

682,000

-13%

37

Syfy

574,000

640,000

-10%

38

Disney Junior

565,000

545,000

+4%

39

INSP

550,000

529,000

+4%

40

Unimas

545,000

702,000

-22%

41

Cartoon Network

544,000

849,000

-36%

42

Animal Planet

516,000

562,000

-8%

43

Travel Channel

515,000

491,000

+5%

44

Paramount Network

507,000

567,000

-11%

45

National Geographic

504,000

452,000

+12%

46

Nick Jr.

471,000

640,000

-26%

47

OWN

465,000

539,000

-14%

48

WE TV

449,000

469,000

-4%

49

NBC Sports Network

430,000

332,000

+30%

50

BET

423,000

477,000

-11%

51

GSN

417,000

376,000

+11%

52

E! Entertainment

409,000

467,000

-12%

53

Comedy Central

392,000

416,000

-6%

54

LMN

363,000

454,000

-20%

55

Fox Sports 1

360,000

462,000

-22%

56

WGN America

352,000

372,000

-5%

57

Oxygen

343,000

297,000

+15%

58

Grit

339,000

345,000

-2%

59

FXX

331,000

356,000

-7%

60

ESPN 2

323,000

333,000

-3%

61

Science Channel

320,000

300,000

+7%

62

Nat Geo Wild

307,000

268,000

+15%

tie

Tru TV

307,000

388,000

-21%

64

CNBC

297,000

323,000

-8%

65

CMT

290,000

307,000

-6%

66

NFL Network

287,000

322,000

-11%

tie

HLN

285,000

300,000

-5%

68

Bounce TV

278,000

298,000

-7%

tie

Estrella TV

278,000

241,000

+15%

70

DIY

268,000

271,000

-1%

71

BBC America

265,000

280,000

-5%

tie

Motor Trend

265,000

260,000

+2%

73

Sundance TV

238,000

236,000

+1%

74

Laff

234,000

169,000

+38%

75

IFC

205,000

188,000

+9%

76

Weather Channel

198,000

248,000

-20%

77

Escape

177,000

174,000

+2%

78

Univision Deportes

173,000

185,000

-6%

79

Cozi TV

171,000

183,000

-7%

80

Reelzchannel

167,000

180,000

-7%

81

Heroes and Icons

165,000

n/a

n/a

82

Disney XD

158,000

205,000

-23%

83

Pop 

157,000

175,000

-10%

84

Nicktoons

152,000

209,000

-27%

85

TV One

150,000

170,000

-12%

86

MLB Network

149,000

162,000

-8%

87

Galavision

141,000

169,000

-17%

88

Cooking Channel

137,000

139,000

-17

89

FX Movie Channel

136,000

130,000

+5%

90

American Heroes Channel

132,000

168,000

-21%

91

Golf Channel

127,000

129,000

-2%

92

FYI

121,000

152,000

-20%

93

Teennick

119,000

145,000

-18%

94

RFD-TV

114,000

129,000

-12%

95

Destination America

111,000

179,000

-38%

tie

UP

111,000

127,000

-13%

97

Boomerang

108,000

139,000

-22%

tie

Smithsonian

108,000

97,000

+11%

99

GAC

104,000

104,000

0%

100

Fox Business Network

103,000

107,000

-4%

101

NBA TV

99,000

110,000

-10%

102

Viceland

94,000

104,000

-10%

103

MTV 2

92,000

119,000

-23%

104

Discovery En Español

87,000

89,000

-2%

105

Azteca America

86,000

98,000

-12%

106

Comet

82,000

n/a

n/a

107

Ovation Network

81,000

83,000

-2%

108

ESPNU

80,000

87,000

-8%

109

Discovery Family Channel

62,000

118,000

-46%

110

Discovery Life Channel

62,000

77,000

-19%

111

Logo

61,000

65,000

-6%

112

Universo

56,000

58,000

-3%

113

Fox Deportes

55,000

53,000

+4%

114

BET Her

51,000

55,000

-7%

tie

Tennis Network

51,000

47,000

+9%

116

Baby First TV

49,000

55,000

-9%

tie

El Rey

49,000

54,000

-9%

118

Fuse

43,000

49,000

-12%

119

ESPN Deportes

42,000

42,000

0%

120

ESPNEWS

39,000

n/a

n/a

121

Cine Latino

37,000

34,000

+9%

tie

Fox Sports 2

37,000

38,000

-3%

123

Universal Kids

32,000

118,000

-73

124

Discovery Familia

28,000

29,000

-3%

125

CNN En Español

23,000

n/a

n/a

126

BEIN Sport Español

17,000

30,000

-43%

127

Justice Central

14,000

20,000

-30%

128

MTV Classic

10,000

16,000

-38%

129

BEIN Sport

7,000

14,000

-50%

130

Comedy TV

1,000

2,000

-50%

Source: Nielsen, NPM (01/01/2018-12/02/2018 vs. 12/26/2016-12/03/2017) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm, ad-supported networks, Live+7. Ranked by 2018 Year-To-Date.

THE 50 MOST WATCHED NETWORKS OF 2018 (AMONG ADULTS 18-49)

NETWORK

2018 VIEWERS

2017 VIEWERS

% CHANGE

1

NBC

2,362,000

2,253,000

+5%

2

ABC

1,650,000

1,821,000

-9%

3

Fox

1,642,000

1,873,000

-12%

4

CBS

1,564,000

1,838,000

-15%

5

ESPN

736,000

793,000

-7%

6

Univision

611,000

738,000

-17%

7

USA

604,000

681,000

-11%

8

TBS

598,000

677,000

-12%

9

Telemundo

596,000

700,000

-15%

10

The CW

593,000

689,000

-14%

11

TNT

584,000

580,000

+1%

12

Adult Swim

503,000

554,000

-9%

13

MTV

458,000

392,000

+17%

14

Discovery

439,000

519,000

-15%

15

Bravo

433,000

468,000

-7%

16

FX

427,000

496,000

-14%

17

A&E

406,000

400,000

+1%

18

VH1

395,000

406,000

-3%

19

Ion

384,000

363,000

+6%

20

AMC

383,000

501,000

-24%

tie

HGTV

383,000

426,000

-10%

tie

TLC

383,000

356,000

+8%

23

Food Network

380,000

390,000

-3%

24

History

352,000

408,000

-14%

25

Investigation Discovery

334,000

350,000

-5%

26

Fox News

296,000

319,000

-7%

27

Freeform

294,000

372,000

-21%

28

Nick at Nite

282,000

328,000

-14%

29

Nickelodeon

259,000

328,000

+4%

30

CNN

255,000

289,000

-12%

31

MSNBC

253,000

261,000

-3%

32

Comedy Central

252,000

272,000

-7%

33

Hallmark Channel

250,000

261,000

-4%

34

Lifetime

249,000

334,000

-25%

35

Unimas

248,000

324,000

-23%

36

Paramount Network

232,000

265,000

-12%

37

Syfy

228,000

257,000

-11%

38

E! Entertainment

217,000

250,000

-13%

39

BET

197,000

232,000

-15%

40

Cartoon Network

188,000

283,000

-34%

41

Travel Channel

187,000

181,000

+3%

42

FXX

179,000

201,000

-11%

43

Tru TV

175,000

226,000

-23%

44

Disney Junior

168,000

168,000

0%

45

WE TV

159,000

158,000

+1%

46

NBC Sports Network

154,000

128,000

+20%

47

Animal Planet

149,000

165,000

-10%

48

TV Land

144,000

160,000

-10%

49

National Geographic

133,000

126,000

+6%

tie

OWN

133,000

171,000

-22%

Source: Nielsen, NPM (01/01/2018-12/02/2018 vs. 12/26/2016-12/03/2017) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm, ad-supported networks, Live+7. Ranked by 2018 Year-To-Date.

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