Most Watched Channels of 2021: TV Network Winners & Losers

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.

Here, The Hamden Journal 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.