The week of March 5 was arguably the first “typical” week of TV in 2018: no primetime NFL playoff games, no Winter Olympics, no big awards shows or other events. The broadcast networks aired mostly new episodes of their shows in primetime, and cable channels that program originals were largely up and running too.

Chances are, however, that you watched only a minuscule amount of what the TV universe had to offer. In fact, it would have been literally impossible for a person to watch everything on primetime television as it aired during the week of March 5.

TV by the Numbers took a deep dive into the vast amount of programming that airs in a given week, using March 5-11 as the case study. The data below dissect just how much programming there is in a given week — and just how little of it pulls in what we think of as a sizable audience.

The numbers cited below come mostly from Nielsen Live +7 ratings for the week. It’s not a complete picture, as those figures don’t include streaming services like Netflix or Hulu; PBS or C-SPAN, commercial-free channels whose ratings aren’t included in most public Nielsen reports; and some smaller cable and satellite channels (ESPN Classic and DirecTV’s Audience channel, among others) that don’t opt in to Nielsen’s measurement.

It also doesn’t include thousands more hours of daytime and late-night programming (we’ll get to some of that in a bit). But it’s pretty representative of an average week on TV, and it will give you a good sense of just how vast the scope of the medium is today.

The (overwhelming) numbers

In the week of March 5, 3,062 Nielsen-rated programs — both originals and (mostly) repeats — aired in primetime. Only about 14 percent of those shows aired on broadcast TV — ABC, CBS, The CW, FOX, NBC, Ion; Spanish-language networks Univision, Telemundo, UniMas and Azteca; and services like MeTV and Bounce TV, which usually air on digital subchannels owned by a network affiliate.

The vast majority aired on 114 different cable channels:


Twenty-six broadcast and cable shows, not quite 1 percent of the total, made their season or series debuts in the week (15 more shows premiered on streaming services). Almost 70 percent of primetime shows (2,134 of them) were coded as reruns. Dozens of other shows most people would think of as repeats — old sitcom and drama episodes airing on a particular channel for the first time — are also part of the mix. Probably not more than a quarter of the 3,062 shows were original, first-run airings.

The total running time for all 3,062 shows was 168,526 minutes. That’s 2,808 hours, 46 minutes — just more than 117 days. If you had started watching every primetime show from the week at 8 p.m. ET March 5, you’d finish at 8:46 p.m. on June 30.

And here’s the thing: Statistically speaking, no one watched most of what was on. More than two-thirds of primetime shows drew less than half a million viewers, even with a week of delayed viewing. More than 20 percent had audiences under 100,000.

In the adults 18-49 demographic, the sweet spot for ad sales on broadcast and a number of cable networks, the top group is even smaller. Just 79 shows — a scant 2.58 percent — managed a 1.0 rating (roughly 1.28 million people in that age range), which is an OK-but-not-great mark for a network show and pretty solid for cable. More than 40 percent had 0.0 ratings, meaning no more than 64,000 adults under 50 watched.


The great majority of the 1.0-plus club in adults 18-49 were broadcast shows, while cable had more programs above 1 million viewers.


A great many of those unwatched shows are on channels in the 100s and up in your on-screen guide, offshoots of bigger names: Discovery Family, TeenNick, Universal Kids and the like. They’re usually included in digital tiers on cable and subsist mostly on subscription fees.

For the record, the least-watched shows for March 5-11 were “Comedy.TV” and two episodes of “Comics Unleashed,” all on the lightly distributed Comedy.TV; and a rebroadcast of a soccer match from Spain’s La Liga on beIN Sports. All four averaged 1,000 (yes, one thousand) viewers.

Primetime top 5s

The most-watched primetime shows of the week were pretty much what you’d expect: “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Walking Dead,” “This Is Us” and the like. Here are the top 5 shows across Nielsen’s three measurement periods — same-day, Live +3 and Live +7. First, adults 18-49:

Live + same-day Live +3 Live +7
Show 18-49 rating   Show 18-49 rating   Show 18-49 rating
The Walking Dead (AMC) 2.8 The Walking Dead 4.1 This Is Us 4.6
The Big Bang Theory (CBS) 2.6 The Big Bang Theory 3.9 The Walking Dead 4.4
The Voice – Monday (NBC) 2.5 This Is Us 3.8 The Big Bang Theory 4.3
American Idol – premiere (ABC) 2.3 Young Sheldon (CBS) 3.1 Young Sheldon 3.3
This Is Us (NBC) 2.3 Grey’s Anatomy (ABC) 2.9 Grey’s Anatomy 3.2
The Voice – Monday 2.9 The Voice – Monday 3.2


And total viewers:

Live + same-day   Live +3   Live +7
Viewers (millions)
Viewers (millions)
Viewers (millions)
The Big Bang Theory (CBS) 13.88 The Big Bang Theory 17.45 The Big Bang Theory 18.5
NCIS (CBS) 12.92 NCIS 16.05 NCIS 17.36
Young Sheldon (CBS) 12.55 Young Sheldon 15.81 Young Sheldon 16.64
The Voice – Monday (NBC) 11.63 This Is Us (NBC) 13.53 This Is Us 15.46
American Idol – premiere (ABC) 10.48 The Voice – Monday 13.37 Bull (CBS) 14.17


Outside primetime

People obviously have their TVs on during the day as well — a lot of them. In fact, in same-day ratings, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” had bigger average audiences during the week of March 5 than all but four primetime shows.

We usually express syndication ratings in terms of households on TVBTN because that’s the basis for ad sales. Below you can see the total audiences for the top syndicated shows, and they rival primetime. Also below: the five biggest sports telecasts of the week. All are live + same-day total viewers.

Syndication   Sports
Viewers (millions)
Viewers (millions)
Wheel of Fortune 10.71 PGA Valspar Championship – Sunday (NBC) 6.91
Jeopardy 10.65 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup/Phoenix (FOX) 4.58
Judge Judy 10.48 PGA Valspar Championship – Saturday (NBC) 4.31
Family Feud 10.25 ACC Tournament – N. Carolina/Virginia (ESPN) 3.44
Entertainment Tonight 4.69 Big 12 Tournament – W. Virginia/Kansas (ESPN) 2.85


ABC was the network-news leader for the week, scoring the biggest total audiences in both the morning and evening:

Morning news   Evening news
Viewers (millions)
Viewers (millions)
Good Morning America (ABC) 4.48 ABC World News Tonight 9.13
Today (NBC) 4.22 NBC Nightly News 8.33
CBS This Morning 3.49 CBS Evening News 6.5


In the key news demo of adults 25-54, “Today” had a lead of 130,000 people over “GMA” in the mornings, and “World News Tonight” edged “NBC Nightly News” by a scant 81,000 viewers, notching its first demo win in more than 20 months.

In cable news, Fox News led both in primetime and total day, with MSNBC running a solid second in primetime.

Cable news primetime   Cable news total day
Viewers (millions)
Viewers (millions)
Fox News 2.29 Fox News 1.36
MSNBC 1.85 MSNBC 1.0
CNN 1.04 CNN 0.71
CNBC 0.35 HLN 0.26
HLN 0.3 CNBC 0.15
Fox Business 0.09 Fox Business 0.13


Finally, late night: “Saturday Night Live” is far and away the biggest show in both adults 18-49 and viewers, and the three flagship network late-night shows are pretty tightly bunched, especially in the 18-49 demographic.

Late night
Show 18-49 rating   Show
Viewers (millions)
Saturday Night Live (NBC) 1.5 Saturday Night Live 6.04
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon(NBC) 0.6 The Late Show 3.21
Adult Swim (11:30 p.m.-12:30 a.m.) 0.5 The Tonight Show 2.3
Jimmy Kimmel Live (ABC) 0.5 Jimmy Kimmel Live 2.17
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS) 0.4 Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC) 1.59
Adult Swim (12:30-1:30 a.m.) 0.4

Graphics made with Tableau Public. All ratings via The Nielsen Company.

Posted by:Rick Porter

Rick Porter has been covering TV since the days when networks sent screeners on VHS, one of which was a teaser for the first season of "American Idol." He's left-handed, makes a very solid grilled cheese and has been editor of TV by the Numbers since October 2015. He lives in Austin.

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