Top Rated Shows of 2021: Yellowstone, NCIS and Most Watched Episodes

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.

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

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. Cheaters (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).