NEW YORK — CBS claimed the distinction of most-watched television network for the 15th straight year, even as those bragging rights don’t mean what they used to.
The network averaged just under 6 million viewers on a typical moment in prime time for the season that just concluded, the Nielsen company said on Friday. NBC was the second most popular, followed by Fox and ABC — the same pecking order as last year.
All of the networks lost viewers from the year before, with NBC’s 13% decline the steepest and Fox’s 1% drop the smallest, Nielsen said.
CBS’ winning streak began in a different era, back when the mention of streaming or cord-cutting would earn a quizzical look. Its viewership average during that 2008-09 season was 11.75 million, nearly double what it was this year.
In comparison, ABC and Fox both lost more than half of their live viewers from the 2008-09 season, while NBC was down 33% from that time, when it was at an ebb, Nielsen said.
Quite simply, viewers have far more choices today and are accustomed to creating their own entertainment schedules. The broadcast networks also benefit from that; CBS said that within 35 days, a typical episode of “CSI: Vegas” more than doubles its viewership from the night it first airs.
But, increasingly, live events like sports are what brings viewers to network television. NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” was the most popular program this past season, averaging 18.5 million live viewers, Nielsen said.
“Sunday Night Football” first aired on NBC in 2006. Longevity was a key component in other popular shows. The most-watched drama on the night it first airs, CBS’ “NCIS,” has been on the network’s schedule since 2003. The most popular comedy, CBS’ “Young Sheldon,” first aired in 2017, but it was a spinoff from “The Big Bang Theory,” which began a decade earlier.
The most-watched news program in prime time, CBS’ “60 Minutes,” has been on the air since 1968. The most-watched reality show, NBC’s “The Voice,” began in 2011.
All but two of the 10 most-watched scripted shows were dramas. “Young Sheldon” and CBS’ “Ghosts” were the two exceptions.
CBS had seven of the 10 most popular scripted shows. The others were producer Dick Wolf’s “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med” and “Chicago P.D.” trilogy on NBC.