17 surprising things TV ratings from 2015 tell us about the state of television

We all know that the state of television has been changing rapidly, perhaps faster than ever in 2015. And it's almost all to the good. There's more television than ever before -- Nielsen tracked a whopping 1,400 television shows last year -- and, more importantly, there is more good and even great television shows on the air and streaming over the Internet than ever before .

And when you dig into the numbers, you find out all kinds of surprising things. Here's 17 of them.

Fear the Walking Dead is the second-most popular cable show on television
If you're even just a little bit tuned into American pop culture, you're at least aware that AMC's The Walking Dead is a cultural and ratings monster. In fact, it was the third most popular show on all of television in 2015. But what's surprising is that spin-off show Fear the Walking Dead is the second-most popular cable show on television, coming in at #24 overall with an average of 11.8 million viewers. Which, by the way, is still ratings monster territory by cable TV standards.

Fear the Walking Dead begins at the outset of the same zombie apocalypse that afflicts The Walking Dead, with the difference being that it follows a completely new cast of characters in Los Angeles (whereas The Walking Dead was set outside of Atlanta, Georgia in its early seasons).

the walking dead

Rizzoli & Isles is the third-most popular cable show on television
I don't have much of a preamble for this one except to state that TNT's Rizzoli & Isles, while the third-most popular cable show on television, comes in at #90 overall with an average audience of 6.5 million viewers. The huge drop off between Fear the Walking Dead and Rizzoli & Isles shows both how popular AMC's zombie shows are but also that in terms of overall ratings, if not critical acclaim, broadcast television still dominates.

Ballers was the third-most popular show on HBO in 2015
First, the not so surprising: Game of Thrones was HBO's most popular show on television in 2015 with an average of 9.5 million viewers (premium cable shows are tracked separately from cable TV, it seems). And True Detective, coming off its explosive debut in 2014 had a much more problematic and uneven sophomore effort in 2015 but still managed to be HBO's second most popular show last year with an average of 4 million viewers.

New series Ballers came in third place for HBO with an average of 2.7 million viewers. Ballers, which pretty accurately could be described as an "Entourage for sports," stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Spencer Strasmore, a former NFL star who has transitioned into a financial manager-meets-Ari Gold type. And this then is the vehicle to provide insight into the world of highly paid sports stars and the baller lifestyles they leave. The show is okay, but for my (non baller-level) money I'd much more highly recommend Starz' Survivor's Remorse. And on HBO, it's surprising that veteran comedy Girls or standout comedy Togetherness can't pull these kind of numbers.

HBO's viewer numbers skyrocket when you account for streaming services HBO Go and HBO Now
Game of Thrones zooms up from 9.5 million viewers to an average of 20 million viewers while True Detective goes from 4 million to 11 million. Even little watched Looking pulls in 1.8 million viewers on average (from a lowly 343,000) when you count HBO's streaming services. 

No wonder that competing network Showtime is aggressively pushing its streaming service, Showtime Everywhere, and has partnered with Hulu to offer a bundled package.

House of Lies was among Showtime's lowest rated shows in 2015
Speaking of standout comedies, I've always been a huge fan of Showtime's House of Lies, featuring one of the most dynamic and hilarious casts on television: Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, Ben Schwartz, and Josh Lawson are a comedy dream team and it's a shame that most people still haven't caught onto this cynical and hilarious show about cutthroat management consultants.

Sadly, Showtime was the third-least watched original series on Showtime in 2015, coming in at an average of 995,000 viewers. And if you're curious, the bottom two are Episodes (661,000 viewer average) and the one and done Happyish (382,000).

The lowest ranked show on all of television is Discovery Life’s NY ER
Keep in mind that Nielsen doesn't even rank a bunch of TV shows that rate too few viewers to bother with, but the Discovery Life (a network that most haven't heard of, I'd wager?) came in at an average of 149,000 viewers, which is good for #1,356.

More on Nielsen not even ranking a bunch of shows...
There are a lot of them, including Get Swank'd on FYI, Southern Fried Road Trip on Cooking Channel, and Brew Dogs on Esquire. What, those are your three favorite shows? My apologies.

Celebrity Conversations on Ovation is the least watched television show on all of television
Throw in all of the unranked shows, for which we don't even have average viewer numbers, and Celebrity Conversations on Ovations is your winner/loser. The pretty surprising thing here is that the show seems perfectly watchable as you have film critic David Poland chatting with great guests that include Judd Apatow and Tobey Maguire.

I'd speculate there are a few things at work here. First, the proliferation of television shows is matched by a proliferation of television networks. There's just too much going on across too many channels to easily keep track of. Secondly, you could argue that the rising popularity of podcasts is a factor here. I've heard Judd Apatow interviewed on Adam Carolla's popular podcast at least a few times, for instance, so while I know he's a great guest (on top of being a highly influential director and comedy mind), I personally absorb a lot of interview content on the audio/podcast side of my entertainment palette.

The least-watched broadcast television show of 2015? CW's Dates
Dates on CW came in at an average of 553,000 viewers, proving that broadcast network distribution doesn't automatically equate to numbers.

I'd absolutely love to learn how much audience the lowest ranked show of, say, 1958 or 1968 was. I'd bet solid cash money it was at least 10x half a million viewers.

There's a reason why NFL football and college football get a gargantuan amount of promotion on television
The Super Bowl post-game show was the second most popular single telecast show on all of television last year, with over 73 million viewers. Yeah, that's a little bit more than Celebrity Conversations brought in. The Super Bowl itself brought in over 115 million viewers (and that's just the United States -- worldwide + galactic numbers shoot that number into lunar territory), while college football bowl and championship games in addition to the Super Bowl and playoff action a whopping eight of the Top 10 single telecast airings on television in 2015.

The other two outliers? That'd be the Oscars telecast, with over 38 million viewers, and a post-Super Bowl airing of The Blacklist, which pulled in over 30 million of those still stunned by the New England Patriots' last second victory over the Seattle Seahawks.

Dancing With the Stars remains one of the most popular shows on television
ABC's long running reality show about the dancing and the stars and stars who dance is the most-watched primetime reality show, averaging 14.5 million viewers. And it was the seventh most popular show on all of television in 2015.

Reality shows are not nearly "dead"
CBS' Survivor, which has aired approximately 450 seasons to date, still holds up remarkably well with a #25 showing for all of television in 2015 and an average of 11.6 million viewers. And The Bachelor, having aired 321 seasons (confirmed, I just looked it up) comes in at a #47 rank for all of television and an average of 9.6 million viewers.

Now, are new hit reality TV franchises getting harder to come by? That might be a worthy topic of debate -- particularly on broadcast networks.

Discovery's Gold Rush was the most popular docu-series on television in 2015
One of about 71 reality shows on Discovery that take place in Alaska, this one's about a crew seeking out the mother lode up in the Yukon. It averaged 5.7 million viewers last year.

The Walking Dead dominates both the TV and social media worlds
It was the most-tweeted show of the year, with an "average unique audience" of close to 4 million per broadcast. Not surprisingly, teen friendly scripted shows like ABC's Pretty Little Liars (2.2 million average unique audience) and FOX' Empire (2.5 million) also made the Top 10 list for the year. 

Togetherness was not among the three lowest rated original shows on HBO
This tid bit comes with both surprise and relief for me, as I'd like for this Duplass brothers dramedy gem to stay on the air a long, long time. For what it's worth, Doll & Em was the lowest rated HBO original series of 2015, with numbers too low for Nielsen to bother reporting on them.

The most popular Spanish language television show is called Mi Corazon Es Tuyo
And it's not even close. The Univison soap eats up the top five rankings on the "regularly scheduled" list, with Hasta Fin Del Mundo pulling down rankings 6-10.

Nielsen ratings is still a thing
Just thought I'd throw that out there.

By Eric - TV Geek Army "Revered Leader"

About the author

Eric is the publisher and revered leader of TV Geek Army… at least in his own mind. TV Geek Army is a place for serious TV reviews and news for serious fans of great television. Contact: eric-[at]-tvgeekarmy.com 

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