The nearly three dozen series that debuted on broadcast networks in 2020-2021 have faced challenges unlike any other freshman class in recent memory.
Added to the downward trend in ratings for broadcast networks for years, the crop of series has entered a television landscape in which two major media companies have launched streaming services (WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock) since the end of the previous season.
Oh, and a global pandemic has delayed production – or even official series orders, in several cases – on just about every scripted show and robbed networks of the force multiplier of their traditional fall launch. Fall’s first new scripted series that wasn’t a 2019-2020 holdover or low-cost import (NBC quarantine comedy Link, for the record) was not presented until the third week of the traditional season, and most of the others were at least a week or two late.
So it’s no surprise that breakout shows have been woefully hard to come by in 2020-2021. Still, a few freshman series have managed to separate themselves from the pack and grab a sizable following despite bigger obstacles than usual.
(All numbers below include one week of delayed viewing; season averages are through May 9.)
CBS ‘ Equalizer, NBC Law and order: organized crime and ABC Big sky stand out in the group of 34 first-year shows, ranking first, second and third in total viewership, and first, second and fourth in the key advertising demographics of adults aged 18 to 49.
Equalizer achieved a post-Super Bowl first at the top echelons of the network ranking, finishing second among all non-sports programs in total viewers (12.69 million, just behind NCIS) and fourth of demo 18-49 (note 1.9). Even taking into account the 23.76 million viewers of the first episode and the demo rating of 5.6, the reboot of the 1980s series directed by Queen Latifah would rank number one among new viewer shows (10 , 84 million) and third in the demo (1.3, tied with that of Fox. I can see your voice).
Organized crime, which marked the very ballyhooed return of Chris Meloni to the L&O-verse, debuted with big numbers (11.4 million viewers and 2.5 million among adults aged 18-49) and has held up pretty well since. For the season, it draws 8.35 million viewers and a 1.7 18-49 rating.
David E. Kelley Big sky, meanwhile, registers 7.51 million viewers per episode and a 1.2 in the key demo – while also being among the season leaders in terms of delayed airing in percentage terms. The mystery doubles its 18-49 rating and more than doubles its total audience within seven days of its initial airing.
Several other shows have proven capable of attracting decent audiences: ABC’s Celebrity Wheel of Fortune (7.15 million viewers) and The hunt (5.6 million), CBS ‘ United States of Al (6.1 million) and B positive (5.69 million), Fox’s I can see your voice (4.84 million) and Call me Kat (4.16 million) and NBC Mr. Mayor (4.16 million) and Young Rock (3.85 million) have all been renewed. Wheel of Fortune will be part of ABC’s Sunday programming in the fall, and both CBS shows will occupy half-hour slots in the network’s Thursday comedy block. The Fox and NBC series will return in early 2022.
Special Mention: The CW
The fifth English-language broadcaster has created three scripted series since January – Walker, Superman and Lois and Kung Fu – and they rank 1-2-3 on the network in total viewership for the season, surpassing veterans like Flash and the last stretch of Supernatural. Superman and Lois (2.69 million viewers) and Walker (2.68 million) are in a virtual tie for the first, and Kung Fu (1.82 million) is the third, to a few hundred thousand viewers Flash.
Not bad, but not enough
CBS ‘ Clarice and ABC Rebel rank fifth and seventh among freshman shows among viewers and are in the top half of the 18-49 rankings. Neither, however, return to their original homes next season in two of the initial week’s biggest surprises. Clarice will be able to live, at least, with a passage to the streaming service Paramount + of ViacomCBS. Rebel, of Grey’s Anatomy and Station 19 showrunner Krista Vernoff, was canceled after just over a month on the air.
The vast environment
Most of the remaining 18 sets fall into a shrug-emoji, “Guess you’re okay?” zone, with numbers in several cases good enough for renewal (NBC’s Kenan, ABC Domestical economy) or at least not bad enough to be canceled, at least until the networks make the final decisions among their second-half shows (see: The masked dancer, debris et al). Fox animated comedy The big North is among the least watched newcomers in Nielsen’s rankings (1.81 million viewers), but her rating of 0.6 18-49 sits a bit higher on the list, growing significantly on digital platforms and it has already funded renewals until 2022-2023.
Link was the first rookie to premiere last fall – and she was also the first to go, lasting just three episodes on NBC before the rest of her season moved to digital platforms. Still, its 1.84 million viewers were about half a million more than Fox’s Pepsi-commercial-as-game-show. Wild Cherries, which averaged just 1.3 million over its six episodes.