What a difference a year makes. In 2020, when trying to write who “won the year”, I had to parse multiple data sources, plus Covid-19’s lockdowns made everything tougher to judge what truly did well and what folks happened to stream for a few weeks in March.
In 2021, with Nielsen releasing thirty data points per week, Netflix’s global viewership data (going back half a year), along with TV Time and Samba TV releasing a lot more data, we know a lot more about which shows and films were popular in 2021 than we knew in 2020
And don’t get me started on 2019 and earlier. Like Jon Snow, we knew nothing.
Also, unlike 2020, the winners seem a lot clear. (You know the most popular TV show off the top of your head, right?) If you want to read my winners and losers of 2020, head over to Decider. Otherwise, let’s get started. First, the criteria:
– This is U.S. viewership only.
– For shows that premiered in 2021.
– There isn’t an “algorithm” that can answer this question. Sorry. It’s my judgement.
– Nor is there an official scoreboard. We have multiple metrics to wade through, which can produce different winners.
– Where I can, I’ll try to call out a winner and loser per streaming service. With the caveat that Netflix dominates streaming viewership, as I laid out last week, so they have the most winners.
– For winners, costs doesn’t really matter. Big budgets lead to bigger hits, so be it.
– For losers, cost does matter. A $20 million dollar per episode flop hurts more than a $50K per episode reality series.
Television – Winners
1st Place – Squid Game (Netflix)
Not a shocker, right? I don’t know what else to say about this dominating series that I didn’t say all of last October. If I had to pick one metric that shows its dominance, I’d put out this one showing how much it boosted streaming viewership for Netflix, as I showed last week.
You can also see that it was the top series in the “forty million hour club” for 2021. (But still behind Ozark and Tiger King from 2020’s lock downs.
But the most impressive chart is still this Google Trends look:
It achieved interest on par with the biggest franchises of the last five years. To do all this…with only 9 episodes! To quote Larry Bird at the inaugural NBA Three Point Competition in 1986, everyone else was playing for second.
2nd Place – Criminal Minds (Netflix)
According to Nielsen, Criminal Minds was the most streamed series in America in 2021. While technically episodes are available on Hulu and Paramount+, I think the majority of this viewership came on Netflix.
Why didn’t this beat Squid Game, then? Total run time. Criminal Minds has 322 episodes for customers to binge, so a small number of viewers can drive lots of minutes. Still, we’re talking about 564 million hours…which is more than twice what Squid Game drew. So both deserve credit.
Honorable Mention: Cocomelon. The second place acquired title with 555 million viewers across all platforms, which include Netflix, Hulu, Roku and Prime Video.
3rd Place – Manifest (Netflix)
Remember all the way back in July when it was Manifest summer for Netflix? And while we still underestimate Manifest’s viewership on NBC during its initial runs, it was a huge hit. Here’s my favorite visual from that time, a comparison to the other big series on Netflix:
Manifest just had a slow, steady run. Here’s Nielsen’s Top 15 “Original” Series for 2021, with Manifest added in since it was an “acquired” title from Warner Media:
As you can see, if you consider Manifest an “original”, it would have actually been the top show in America this year. (Though it was out for about three more months than Squid Game.)
Honorable Mentions: Look at that, three Netflix series in a row. So if you think I don’t understand Netflix’s current dominance of streaming, you’re wrong. (I’m a Netflix bear, but I’m not a hater. Or blind.) A few other shows made the Nielsen total hours viewed in 2021 charts and did well weekly. Arguably You (season 3, October), Virgin River (season 3, July), The Witcher (season 2, December), Lucifer (with new episodes in May and September) and Outer Banks (season 2, July) could have made this list.
4th Place – Loki (or WandaVision, Hawkeye or The Falcon and The Winter Soldier) (Disney+)
Honestly, all four of the Marvel series ended up very close in the ratings, with a 96.7, 90.6, 66 and 76 million hours between them through 3 months of viewing. (Hawkeye only has six weeks of ratings to date.)
So if you read the first three sections and thought, Netflix rulez! This is the caveat.
Those launches are good for 6th, 7th, 9th and 15th place among season one debuts, respectively. And a tremendous hit rate for Disney+ on primetime TV. Disney can reliably launch one big series per quarter, while only making one big series per quarter. That’s quite the hit rate.
5th Place – The Wheel of Time (Prime Video)
This is the point where you could accuse me of adding shows just to give each streamer a shout out. And while that is kind of true, this is basically Prime Video’s only candidate this year…and it did well! It was the 9th most viewed season one through seven weeks of release. It did well on TV time rankings and generally delivered when Prime Video needed.
Here’s the TV Time Rankings from November and December showing that folks liked it:
– Ted Lasso on Apple TV+: The big surprise, and probably biggest streaming comedy of the year, showed up on the Nielsen ratings report in September. It was also the third biggest show of the year according to Just Watch, a show tracking/discovery service:
– Yellowstone: The biggest cable drama of the year. It can’t be the top winner though, because it isn’t a true streaming show. But it was on top of both the Just Watch list and the Reelgood Charts, showing how popular it was.
– Rick & Morty: It’s second place to Yellowstone on both those charts! This show probably does have a ton of streaming viewership in addition to great linear ratings.
Losers – TV
As I’ve said before, the trouble with “flops”—or call them misses, bombs, losers or “dogs not barking”—is they often don’t make for good visuals. They’re the absence of visuals. But I gave you nine good visuals above so don’t get greedy.
Instead of a rank, each streamer will get its biggest miss, and then a few honorable mentions.
Netflix – Their Anime Dreams
Between Arcane missing the ratings entirely and Cowboy Bebop thudding on debut, these two shows sort of show that while anime is certainly buzzy (and talked about online), it does not drive viewership. Netflix has put out quite a few other anime series, most of which fail to show up on the rankings charts.
Honorable Mention: Jupiter’s Legacy. By the end of the year, this expensive superhero series was only the 26th highest season one debut in history. Given the costs—and the success of Marvel on Disney+ and The Boys on Prime Video—this is a big miss. After that, Halston only netted 3.5 million hours of viewership, good for 105th of the season one launches in my data set. The Ryan Murphy overall deal continues to underwhelm
Prime Video – The Expanse
Listen, I don’t want to do this either. I love, love, love The Expanse book series. If Ty and Daniel are reading, I don’t want to write this. But your show missed the Nielsen ratings again, so yeah it’s an expensive miss for Prime Video, which is probably why Amazon ended the series. The best argument for The Expanse is that it is well liked by sci-fi fans, with a strong 8.5 on IMDb, on 140K reviews. And it did well on TV Time’s charts.
As for why…your guess is as good as mine. We could say Amazon can’t launch shows, but The Boys and The Wheel of Time prove otherwise. We could say science-fiction doesn’t work, but Lost in Space did okay. Sometimes we can’t answer every question.
Honorable Mentions: Prime Video didn’t have as many candidates as you’d expect, because I think Covid really screwed up their production schedules. The Underground Railroad made the Nielsen rankings, but only for 2 weeks. Season 4 of Goliath made the list for 1 week too. And Modern Love missed the rankings entirely.
Disney+ – All the Disney Channel type shows
Take your pick from Doogie Kameāloha, M.D., Big Shot, Mighty Ducks, and Turner & Hooch, but none of these tween/teen/family series made the Nielsen ratings. Outside of Marvel and Star Wars in TV, Disney+ hasn’t delivered a hit.
Honorable Mentions: Star Wars: Visions. I’ll have more to say on animation intended for adults, but it doesn’t do great. This is the lone Star Wars series to fail to rank in the Nielsen rankings.
Hulu – Prestige Comedies
No one wants awards love quite as much as the development teams at Hulu. (Fine, Netflix.)
Consider these titles: Reservoir Dogs, PEN15, In My Skin and Shrill. None made the Nielsen rankings this year. Other metrics—IMDb and Google Trends—don’t treat them very kindly either. If Hulu wanted my advice, I’d lean into broader comedies and more procedurals to match the content they already have from broadcasters. Like adult animation/anime, this topic deserves a future deep dive from yours truly.
Honorable Mention: Y: The Last Man. This show based on quite a comic book legacy had lingered in development hell…and when it finally debuted it proved why.
Apple TV+ – Foundation
As I’ve mentioned before, The Ankler’s Richard Rushfield would love to call Foundation the most expensive flop in TV history. And it may be! I just can’t prove it. What we can say is that during the time its episodes were released, customers watched fewer than about 5 million hours per week. If not much, much lower.
Honorable Mentions: See season 2 and The Morning Show season 2 never made the Nielsen charts and didn’t mediocre on the TV Time rankings. However, I have to say that Jon Stewart’s new show has really failed to resonate, hasn’t it? If we judge things solely by “the conversation”, this show is barely part of it.
HBO Max – The Gossip Girl reboot.
This is the part of the awards where we have to start guessing. HBO Max, Paramount+ and Peacock don’t let us track their ratings, making it even harder to judge what didn’t work. Of all the HBO Max Originals, I think the reboot of Gossip Girl takes the prize for HBO Max given its pedigree to buzz. Split into two parts, I barely heard anyone talk about this series. And it only lasted for X weeks on TV Time. Not great.
Paramount+ – I don’t know.
Wish I had more to say, but their Star Trek shows get some buzz. And make the TV Time rankings, but that could just be because of “Star Trek” in the title.
Peacock: All of it, almost.
Listen, that’s harsh. But The Lost Symbol? Saved by the Bell? Baking It? Punky Brewster? The Amber Ruffin Show? MacGruber? None of these series made it on any of the metrics I track. I think viewership is very low.
(As always, sign up for my newsletter to get all my columns, streaming ratings reports, and articles in your inbox.)