The 2010s in TV ushered in a new era, with streaming services not only expanding the content to choose from, but changing fundamentally how some people watch.
Unlike pre-streaming days, when nearly all TV was appointment viewing – Americans all sitting down on Thursday to watch “Cheers” or “Friends” — the 2010s allowed people to watch any time, maybe binge an entire series.
But a look at what Americans watched in the 2010s shows we’re not completely culturally fractured from each other yet. There were a lot of nights over the last decade when millions still watched the same thing. There was a night just this past spring when about 20 million Americans watched the last "Game of Thrones" episode on AT&T Inc.'s (NYSE: T) HBO.
Viewing Measured In Roman Numerals
But it was especially true on a particular Sunday night each year in late January or early February. The Super Bowl is still viewed live, and was the most-watched single show we tuned into over the past decade.
Which Super Bowl? All of them.
The top 10 most watched TV shows over the past decade were the 10 Super Bowls played in the decade, topped by 2015’s Super Bowl XLIX, in which the Patriots beat the Seahawks. More than 114 million people watched that, more than five times the "Game of Thrones" single-night audience.
The Super Bowl’s effect on our TV viewing carried over into what TV series we watched most, too. The top series audience of the decade was the 2010 series premiere of “Undercover Boss,” which drew about 39 million viewers.
You know why? Because it was on right after the 2010 Super Bowl won by the Saints. Many of the top TV episodes of the decade, including the second most-watched, the season two premiere of “The Voice,” in 2012, and a February 2018 episode of “This is Us,” benefited from Super Bowl lead-ins.
Still, the "Undercover Boss" episode, first among series, was the 40th most-watched program of the decade, behind all 10 Super Bowls, several presidential debates, other football games, awards shows, like The Oscars, and several State of the Union addresses.
Another shift from earlier times: Americans liked to watch live music performance shows more than dramas or situation comedies. "The Voice," on Comcast Corporation's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) NBC, and "American Idol," on Fox Corp. (NASDAQ: FOXA), were a couple of favorites.
Here’s the list of the Top 10 most-watched TV series episodes, not counting one-time events like Super Bowls or presidential debates, of the past decade:
No. 1: "Undercover Boss," 38.66 million viewers, Feb. 7, 2010. ViacomCBS Inc. (NASDAQ: VIACA)'s CBS.
No. 2: "The Voice," 37.6 million, Feb. 5, 2012. NBC.
No. 3: "American Idol," 30 million. Jan. 12, 2010. Fox.
No. 4: "American Idol," 29.25 million. May 25, 2011.
No. 5: "Two and a Half Men," 28.74 million. Sept. 19, 2011. CBS.
No. 6: "American Idol," 28 million. Feb. 9, 2010.
No. 7: "This is Us." 27 million. Feb. 4, 2018. NBC.
No. 8: "American Idol," 26.9 million. Jan. 20, 2010.
No. 9: "Glee," 26.8 million. Feb. 6, 2011. Fox.
No. 10: "American Idol," 26.4 million. Jan. 13, 2010.
You may notice the top 10 shows are all still from the traditional cable networks. HBO's final episode of "Game of Thrones," would come in just below the Top 10 with its roughly 20 million views. But measuring streamed shows and comparing them to cable network shows is hard.
HBO said that an average episode of "Game of Thrones," when you add in all the additional views the show gets besides the regular first-night air on the HBO cable network, such as all the people who missed it catching up later, was about 44 million. That could make each of those "Game of Thrones" episodes among the most-watched, topping "Undercover Boss."
It would also put it in league with the typical viewership of another event-based telecast that regularly topped series viewership during the decade: each year, the Oscars presentation got a little over 40 million viewers.
But "Game of Thrones" wasn't the most-watched streamed show. Again, the comparisons are hard, because measurements are counted in different ways, but Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ: NFLX) says about 64 million people, on average, watched episodes of "Stranger Things," this past year.
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