Let’s be honest, we were all losers this year
Can we please be done with 2020?
Never have we needed to ring in a new year so badly, but before we say goodbye to this horrible time in human history, TheWrap’s TV team has a professional obligation to actually identify a few winners and then somehow handpick a digestible number of those on the other end from this skyscraping pile of losers.
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Read below to see who we think had the best and worst year across the television industry.
Election years mean big business for cable news, and 2020’s hotly contested race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was a huge boon to Fox News, CNN and MSNBC. Fox upped its viewership by nearly 50% from 2019, and the other two networks also saw big enough increases to creep up the rankings this year.
TLC has pretty much become a one-trick (or at least a one-show) pony, but it’s big bet on a big winner has been paying off. “90 Day Fiancé” and all of its many spinoffs have powered TLC towards the top of the Nielsen ratings charts. In primetime, TLC jumped from 11th place last year to sixth place this year.
And the timing could not be better. When the new Discovery+ streaming service rolls out on Jan. 4, it will become the streaming home to the “90 Day Fiancé Universe.” The Discovery SVOD service has already ordered three new “90 Day Fiancé” spinoffs and is taking “90 Day Fiancé: The Other Way Strikes Back” from TLC.
This spring, with suddenly homebound workers having nothing to do all day, Americans watched insane amounts of daytime programming like soap operas (or at least, your mom did). Initially, the coronavirus pandemic boosted TV ratings. But then when we realized we were in for the long haul — and especially when shows ran out of originals and could not produce more episodes — that trend reversed. At least, it did for pretty much everything outside of the daytime day part.
It wasn’t just soaps seeing a rise in viewership either. Daytime talk shows have enjoyed a bit of a hot streak in 2020. “The View” has especially taken some good with all the bad, and is currently enjoying its best season in years.
Pop TV’s flagship comedy had a year most shows can only dream of, going out on its most popular season yet thanks to strong word of mouth built up throughout its six-season run. But the Dan and Eugene Levy-created comedy’s proudest moment came months after the series end, when it swept the top seven comedy categories at the Emmys, shattering records and leaving none of its stars unrewarded.
The streaming industry took full advantage of all of us being stuck at home way more than we want. (There’s only so many times we can watch “The Office” on Netflix). Disney+ rocketed past 86 million subscribers in its first full calendar year and let Netflix know it may have a real competitor. New services like Peacock and HBO Max debuted and there’s more on the way in 2021: Discovery+ and CBS All Access’ upcoming rebrand into Paramount+. We’d be remiss if we didn’t shout out Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso,” which is just delightful and provided some much needed heartwarming in such an otherwise lousy year. It’s no surprise that Apple renewed not once, but twice this year.
While other shows were forced to shut down, animated series were able to stay in production throughout most of 2020 with relatively little interruption from government stay-at-home orders and the new work-from-home world order thanks to things like Zoom, sound-proof closets and high-quality internet.
Disney and ABC found another big winner in special event programming that brought viewers to their TVs when they had nothing better to do. The first “Disney Family Singalong,” buoyed by appearances from stars like Beyonce and Ariana Grande, turned in big ratings back in April, and follow-up installments performed similarly well.
From mid-March until August, there were no games to watch. While it was bad for all of us stuck at home, it was worse for networks that paid billions to air college basketball (March Madness was sidelined) and NBA and MLB, which saw their seasons delayed and finished without any fans (and far fewer people watching). NBC even saw its 2020 Olympics become the 2021 Olympics. At one point, it got so bad that ESPN willingly aired NBA and WNBA stars playing a game of H-O-R-S-E from their backyards. And even when the leagues did come back, viewership remained depressed — to the point that networks resorted to stunts like bringing in the Muppets and MSNBC political map guru Steve Kornacki.
This is kind of a two-for-one. TV fans have lost out on so much original programming, on so many of their favorite shows, on potential new shows, on beloved series and characters getting a proper sendoff. And let’s be honest, we’ve lost some quality due to coronavirus restrictions on ongoing production. The experience of watching sports and shows without live studio audiences is just not the same — we could go on.
But also, those shows have almost all lost TV viewers. In some cases, a lot of them. Fox has shed 30% of its primetime rating in the key demo so far this season, while NBC has lost 29% and CBS one-quarter of its average demo rating compared to last season. (Thanks to “The Bachelorette,” though, ABC managed to eke out a mere 4% year-to-year decline.
Despite best efforts, we’re all losers in 2020.
America’s long-overdue reckoning with its history of racism made an unexpected target of TV cop shows earlier this year, with dramas forced to reconsider how they portray policing in mass media and unscripted shows like “Cops” and “Live P.D.” getting the ax entirely. The latter show’s sudden cancellation marked the end of A&E’s highest-rated show, a cash cow the network was hoping to ride for at least 160 more episodes.
First, the Grammys turned in record low ratings. Then, the Oscars followed suit. Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, glitzy televised award shows didn’t stand a chance. Forced to choose between awkward virtual broadcasts and potentially dangerous in-person events, viewers repeatedly made it clear that they were not interested in either.
Long one of daytime television’s most prominent faces, Ellen DeGeneres had a rough 2020. After a pair of bombshell exposés about behind-the-scenes treatment of staff on her show, public accounts from former employees and an investigation that led to multiple high-level terminations, the talk show host’s public image a major hit this year, and her shows nosedive in the ratings to match.
Pandemic Casualties (The Shows)
Months after the pandemic brought TV production to a grinding halt and the industry started to chart a path to return to work, it eventually became clear that not every show was going to make it back. Thanks to increased costs from new health and safety precautions and scheduling issues caused by delays, a number of well-liked shows met untimely ends in 2020, including ABC’s “Stumptown,” Netflix’s “GLOW” and Showtime’s “On Becoming a God in Central Florida.”
Here’s another (TV) history lesson: TV shows used to film pilots. Most of the pilots ordered by the broadcast networks for the 2021-22 TV season were either just beginning or about to start filming when the pandemic hit in early March, and the vast majority never got to finish. And with the industry increasingly looking to break away from the traditional development cycle in recent years, it seems unlikely that the old (and pricey) pilot season model will ever return to its former dominance.
Remember Quibi? Jeffrey Katzenberg’s multi-billion-dollar streamer that lasted about as long as the so-called “quick bites” it offered users. The service shuttered just months after its April launch, leaving dozens of shows backed by high-profile talent high and dry and without a home.
You see kids, TV shows used to have background actors. But then again, we used to be able to eat at restaurants and buy groceries without wearing a hazmat suit. While some background actors have recently seen a boost in pay under the new union-mandated safety protocols, the number of available jobs has plummeted as productions look to reduce cost and limit potential exposure on set.
2020 has not been the year for job security. Disney has been hit hard by layoffs, with ABC News and ESPN shedding a number of key employees and Radio Disney shutting down entirely. (Of course, the parks business was the hardest hit segment.) ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal and WarnerMedia are among the other big-name television companies who cut a significant number of staffers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tim Baysinger contributed to this story.