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Most-Watched Television Networks: Ranking 2019’s Winners and Losers

It’s tough out there for a linear network. Even inside the major media conglomerates, the buzz is all about a company’s new digital platform, not its legacy channels. Which is a shame, as millions of Americans still watch TV the old-fashioned way: on TV. 

The streaming services, of course, rely greatly on current and library programs that first aired on linear TV. Yet broadcast and cable networks are struggling to maintain relevance in the digital age, to the point where they’re suffering their own existential crises: HBO will soon be a major pillar of WarnerMedia’s HBO Max service, while most of FX’s new series are premiering on Hulu first, and even Comcast’s upcoming Peacock service is stealing the nickname of its broadcast sister, NBC.

But the streaming world is where viewers — particularly the younger ones — are flocking, and this year’s ranker of most-watched TV networks demonstrates that. The traditional networks that are heavily invested in live sports and news, two types of programming not easily replicated on a streaming platform, are holding steady. As 2019 draws to a close, most of the linear networks devoted to younger audiences continue to face double-digit year-over-year declines. Variety has obtained a ranker of how the linear broadcast, cable and pay TV networks performed in 2019. Here are some of the notable highs and lows of 2019.

Winners

Fox and Fox News

Rupert Murdoch slimmed down his company this year, and the remaining portions of his stand-alone Fox Corp. are doing just fine without the heft. Led by sports and “The Masked Singer,” Fox ended 2019 as the only major broadcast network experiencing growth: up 4% from last year in total viewers. (It dipped 3% in adults 18-49 — the smallest decline of the Big Four). Fox News, meanwhile, weathered controversy to end the year as TV’s No. 5 network and most-watched cable outlet, with a slight 1% growth. (Not all was completely rosy for the company: Fox Sports 1 was down 9%, while Fox Sports 2 slipped a whopping 50%.)

HBO

The critics didn’t love that “Game of Thrones” finale, but audiences sure did watch. The show’s farewell season was easily the No. 1 scripted series of the year among adults 18-49, landing the top six spots for all six of its episodes in that category. It wasn’t the only bright spot: Even as “Thrones,” “Veep” and “Silicon Valley” ended their runs in 2019, the pay cable leader replenished its pipeline with shows like “Succession” (a phenom in its second season), “Euphoria” and “Watchmen.” That was good enough to bump HBO’s primetime viewership by 13% this year — and that was just in linear.

INSP

INSP began life as the PTL Network — yes, of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker fame. In the 2010s, it pulled back on evangelical/ministry programming to focus on more family-friendly, conservative fare (think “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “Highway to Heaven” repeats). The network has now more narrowly focused mostly on westerns (including “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza”), which has put it in the competition with other classic TV networks like Me TV. The programming mix has paid off: INSP is up 13% this year, and its five-year climb (from 280,000 in 2014 to 619,000 in 2019) is notable in this era of cable declines.

Losers

Cinemax

While HBO feasts on big ratings gains and WarnerMedia focuses its efforts on the launch of HBO Max, another “max” — Cinemax — has been lost in the shuffle. The pay cable network no longer appears to be a priority inside the company, and it shows: Cinemax was down a huge 42% in primetime this year. 

Basic Cable General Entertainment Networks

Much has been written about the decline of the broadcast networks — but the erosion of basic cable channels has accelerated. Among major drops in primetime this year among total viewers, AMC was down 22%; FX, down 21%; USA, down 18%; OWN, down 17%; TBS, down 17%; and TNT, down 14%. That, again, explains the shift under way as teams at many of these channels’ studio arms have pivoted to spending more time focused on developing and launching shows for streamers.

Kids and Young Adult TV

It shouldn’t be a surprise that networks targeting young viewers have seen the sharpest decline in linear viewing. But the five-year collapse of these networks in primetime is nonetheless stunning. Disney Channel, for example, went from being a top 10 network in 2014, with 2 million viewers, to just 534,000 viewers this year. Adult Swim, a young-skewing powerhouse during the first half of this decade, saw its primetime average go from 1.3 million in 2014 to 646,000 in 2019. Freeform, when it was ABC Family, averaged 1.1 million in primetime in 2014; now it’s 593,000. And MTV, despite a bit of a rebound, is still down, from 807,000 to 607,000. Yes, most of those disappearing viewers aren’t necessarily gone; they’re now watching shows online. But nonetheless, it’s a reminder that linear ratings are on the way out.

Comedy.TV

The Byron Allen-owned network has the dubious distinction of once again being the least-watched rated network in all of Nielsen, averaging just 1,000 viewers in primetime (and that’s down from its 2,000 average in 2014). Among adults 18-49, the viewership is too small for Nielsen to even measure.

Variety has put together ranker of almost every broadcast and cable network in 2019 (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.

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

THE MOST-WATCHED NETWORKS OF 2019 (BY TOTAL VIEWERS)

Rank NETWORK VIEWERS (000) % CHANGE
1. CBS 7,140 -4%
2. NBC 6,330 -19%
3. ABC 5,192 -4%
4. Fox 4,623 +3%
5. Fox News Channel 2,501 +1%
6. ESPN 1,749 -2%
7. MSNBC 1,741 -3%
8. ION 1,344 0%
9. HGTV 1,307 -10%
10. Univision  1,304 -10%
11. Hallmark Channel 1,265 +3%
12. USA Network 1,230 -19%
13. Telemundo 1,201 -1%
14. History 1,193 -4%
15. TLC 1,185 +11%
16. TBS 1,155 -16%
17. Discovery Channel  1,130 -4%
18. TNT 1,122 -14%
19. The CW 1,093 -24%
20. A&E 1,058 +4%
21. Investigation Discovery 992 -10%
22. CNN  965 -2%
23. Food Network 941 -5%
24. Bravo 883 -1%
25. Nickelodeon 728 -21%
26. AMC 723 -22%
27. Me TV 719 +2%
28. Lifetime 705 0%
29. FX  703 -21%
30. Adult Swim 646 -23%
31. HBO  630 +13%
32. TV Land 620 -3%
33. INSP 619 +13%
34. MTV 607 -8%
35. Freeform  593 -7%
36. Hallmark Movies & Mysteries 579 -6%
37. Nick at Nite  555 -24%
38. VH1  538 -16%
39. Disney Channel 534 -31%
40. Syfy  531 -7%
41. Travel Channel  500 -3%
42. WE TV  488 +9%
43. Paramount Network 466 -7%
44. Animal Planet 464 -10%
45. Nat Geo 454 -10%
46. Disney Junior 424 -25%
47. Unimas  408 -24%
48. GSN 406 -2%
49. Nick Jr. 403 -14%
50. Cartoon Network 386 -29%
51. OWN 378 -17%
52. Grit 373 +10%
53. BET 366 -13%
54. E! Entertainment  361 -11%
55. Comedy Central 358 -8%
56. NBC Sports Network 336 -20%
57. WGN America  328 -7%
58. LMN 327 -10%
59. Fox Sports 1 319 -9%
60. Science Channel 308 -4%
61. ESPN 2 304 -6%
62. Oxygen 298 -13%
63. Bounce TV 275 -1%
FXX 275 -16%
65. HLN 274 -4%
66. NFL Network 271 -14%
67. Nat Geo Wild 261 -14%
68. Motor Trend 258 -3%
69. Tru TV  248 -19%
70. CNBC  236 -21%
71. Estrella TV  235 -15%
72. CMT  234 -18%
73. BBC America  229 -13%
74. Laff 223 -5%
75. IFC  217 +5%
76. SundanceTV  216 -9%
77. DIY 204 -23%
78. Heroes and Icons 196 +18%
79. Family Entertainment TV 194 n/a
80. Weather Channel 187 -5%
81. Showtime 180 -16%
82. TUDN  171 -3%
83. Court TV Mystery  152 -15%
84. Nicktoons 151 -1%
85. Cozi 150 -12%
86. Starz 147 -10%
Reelzchannel 147 -11%
88. Cooking Channel 145 +4%
89. Pop TV  138 -12%
90. MLB Network  135 -7%
91. FX Movie Channel  133 -2%
92. TV One 132 -11%
93. Galavision 128 -9%
94. Disney XD 122 -22%
95. Golf  121 -2%
96. Start TV  114 +65%
97. FYI  108 -11%
98. Smithsonian 106 -2%
Up   106 -5%
100. American Heroes 98 -25%
Boomerang 98 -8%
102. Fox Business Network  97 -6%
103. RFD TV  91 -19%
104. GAC 89 -14%
105. Teennick 89 -25%
106. NBA TV 86 -14%
107. Viceland 83 -12%
108. Starz Encore 81 -6%
109. Hallmark Drama  80 n/a
110. Comet  77 -8%
111. Destination America  75 -32%
Ovation Network 75 -7%
113. MTV 2 73 -21%
114. Discovery En Espanol 72 -17%
115. ESPNU  71 -12%
116. AXS TV  69 n/a
117. Azteca  66 -24%
118. Cinemax 65 -42%
Big Ten Network   65 n/a
Tennis Network 65 +33%
121. Logo  59 -3%
122. Fox Deportes 57 +2%
123. Universo  54 -4%
124. Discovery Family Channel 53 -18%
125. Discovery Life Channel  52 -15%
126. BET Her  49 -4%
127. ESPN Deportes  45 -2%
128. Discovery Familia 36 +24%
129. Baby First TV   35 -27%
ESPNEWS  35 -8%
131. Cine Latino  32 -14%
132. Universal Kids 31 -3%
133. Fuse  29 -33%
134. CNN En Espanol  26 +13%
135. El Rey 25 -48%
136. Fox Sports 2  18 -50%
137. BEIN Sport Espanol  11 -35%
Justice Central 11 -15%
139. MTV Classic 9 -10%
140. BEIN Sport  6 -14%
141. Newsy 3 n/a
142. Comedy TV 1 0%
Source: Nielsen, NPM (12/31/2018-12/01/2019, Live+7 & 12/02/2019-12/15/2019, Live+SD vs. 01/01/2018-12/02/2018, Live+7 & 12/03/2018-12/16/2018, Live+SD) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm. Ranked by 2019 Year-To-Date.

THE 50 TOP-RATED NETWORKS OF 2019 (BY ADULTS 18-49)

Rank NETWORK 18-49 VIEWERS (000) % CHANGE
1. NBC 1,733 -26%
2. Fox 1,617 -3%
3. CBS 1,485 -6%
4. ABC 1,473 -10%
5. ESPN 712 -5%
6. Univision 546 -11%
7. Telemundo 544 -8%
8. USA Network 499 -17%
9. TNT 487 -16%
10. TBS  486 -18%
11. The CW 423 -30%
12. TLC 422 +10%
13. Bravo 411 -6%
14. A&E 405 -1%
15. MTV 393 -14%
16. Adult Swim 385 -23%
17. Discovery Channel  372 -14%
18. ION 362 -5%
19. Food Network 348 -9%
20. HGTV 319 -16%
21. FX 316 -25%
22. VH1  315 -20%
23. History 312 -11%
24. Investigation Discovery 283 -15%
25. Freeform 276 -8%
26. AMC 271 -30%
27. Fox News 247 -15%
28. Comedy Central 231 -8%
29. Lifetime  229 -8%
30. Nick at Nite 226 -20%
31. Nickelodeon  222 -14%
32. Hallmark 219 -16%
33. Syfy 204 -10%
34. Paramount Network 194 -16%
35. CNN  190 -25%
36. MSNBC  189 -25%
37. Unimas  187 -23%
38. Travel Channel  177 -5%
39. E! Entertainment 176 -18%
40. WE TV  164 +3%
41. BET  157 -20%
42. FXX  153 -14%
43. Tru TV 146 -17%
44. Cartoon Network 134 -28%
45. TV Land 129 -10%
46. NBC Sports Network 121 -19%
47. Animal Planet  118 -20%
48. Nat Geo 116 -13%
49. Nick Jr. 115 -8%
50. NFL Network 106 -19%
Source: Nielsen, NPM (12/31/2018-12/01/2019, Live+7 & 12/02/2019-12/15/2019, Live+SD vs. 01/01/2018-12/02/2018, Live+7 & 12/03/2018-12/16/2018, Live+SD) Mon-Sat 8pm-11pm/Sun 7pm-11pm. Ranked by 2019 Year-To-Date.

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