What Is Most Popular on Streaming Platforms? Old Network TV Shows

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“The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds,” each accounted for more viewing time than any other show or movie on streaming platforms last year, according to Nielsen.

Credit...Illustration by The New York Times; Photos via Getty Images

John Koblin

Jan. 12, 2021, 3:55 p.m. ET

Forget buzzy new shows like “The Queen’s Gambit” and “Normal People.” The three series that people spent the most time watching on the major streaming platforms in the United States in 2020 all premiered on network TV more than a decade and a half ago, the research firm Nielsen found.

“The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds,” network shows with hundreds of back episodes available to stream on Netflix and other services, each accounted for more viewing time than any other show or movie, new or old, Nielsen said on Tuesday.

The most-watched movie of the year was “Frozen 2,” one of several movies that attracted viewers to Disney+ in droves. The most-watched series that premiered on a streaming service was the Netflix crime drama “Ozark,” according to Nielsen.

The list seemed to confirm earlier findings that Americans favored comfort and escapist entertainment, in addition to news, as the nation confronted a public health emergency, massive social unrest and a searing presidential election.

This is the first time that Nielsen — the 98-year old company that provides ratings information for broadcast and cable networks — has ranked the most-streamed shows of the year. It started releasing weekly most-streamed lists in 2020.

Service

Millions of hours

viewed in 2020

Acquired series

1

“The Office”

Netflix

952

2

“Grey’s Anatomy”

Netflix

657

3

“Criminal Minds”

Netflix

590

4

“NCIS”

Netflix

469

5

“Schitt’s Creek”

Netflix

396

6

“Supernatural”

Netflix

339

7

“Shameless”

Netflix

304

8

“New Girl”

Netflix

242

9

“The Blacklist”

Netflix

241

10

“Vampire Diaries”

Netflix

235

Original series

1

“Ozark”

Netflix

508

2

“Lucifer”

Netflix

316

3

“The Crown”

Netflix

271

4

“Tiger King”

Netflix

260

5

“The Mandalorian”

Disney+

242

6

“The Umbrella Academy”

Netflix

225

7

“Great Br. Baking Show”

Netflix

221

8

“Boss Baby:

Back in Business”

Netflix

210

9

“Longmire”

Netflix

190

10

“You”

Netflix

183

Movies

1

“Frozen II”

Disney+

249

2

“Moana”

Disney+

175

3

“Secret Life of Pets 2”

Netflix

152

4

“Onward”

Disney+

139

5

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”

Netflix

103

6

“Hamilton”

Disney+

102

7

“Spenser Confidential”

Netflix

90

8

“Aladdin”

Disney+

86

9

“Toy Story 4”

Disney+

74

10

“Zootopia”

Disney+

73

Acquired series

Service

Millions of hours

viewed in 2020

Original series

“The Office”

Netflix

“Ozark”

Netflix

1

1

952

508

“Grey’s Anatomy”

Netflix

“Lucifer”

Netflix

2

2

657

316

“Criminal Minds”

Netflix

“The Crown”

Netflix

3

3

590

271

“NCIS”

Netflix

“Tiger King”

Netflix

4

4

469

260

“Schitt’s Creek”

Netflix

“The Mandalorian”

Disney+

5

5

396

242

“Supernatural”

Netflix

“The Umbrella Academy”

Netflix

6

6

339

225

“Shameless”

Netflix

“Great British Baking Show”

Netflix

7

7

304

221

“New Girl”

Netflix

“Boss Baby: Back in Business”

Netflix

8

8

242

210

“The Blacklist”

Netflix

“Longmire”

Netflix

9

9

241

190

“Vampire Diaries”

Netflix

“You”

Netflix

10

10

235

183

Movies

“Frozen II”

Disney+

1

249

“Moana”

Disney+

2

175

“Secret Life of Pets 2”

Netflix

3

152

“Onward”

Disney+

4

139

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”

Netflix

5

103

“Hamilton”

Disney+

6

102

“Spenser Confidential”

Netflix

7

90

“Aladdin”

Disney+

8

86

“Toy Story 4”

Disney+

9

74

“Zootopia”

Disney+

10

73

Millions of hours

viewed in 2020

Acquired series

Original series

Movies

Service

Disney+

1

“Frozen II”

1

“Ozark”

Netflix

1

“The Office”

Netflix

249

508

952

Disney+

2

“Moana”

2

“Lucifer”

Netflix

2

“Grey’s Anatomy”

Netflix

175

316

657

“Secret Life of Pets 2”

3

Netflix

3

“The Crown”

Netflix

3

“Criminal Minds”

Netflix

152

271

590

“Onward”

4

“Tiger King”

Netflix

4

Disney+

139

260

4

“NCIS”

Netflix

469

5

“The Mandalorian”

Disney+

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”

5

“Schitt’s Creek”

Netflix

5

Netflix

103

242

396

6

“The Umbrella Academy”

Netflix

6

“Supernatural”

Netflix

“Hamilton”

6

Disney+

102

225

339

7

“Great British Baking Show”

Netflix

“Spenser Confidential”

7

“Shameless”

Netflix

7

Netflix

221

304

90

“Aladdin”

Disney+

8

8

“Boss Baby: Back in Business”

Netflix

8

“New Girl”

Netflix

86

210

242

9

“Toy Story 4”

Disney+

9

“Longmire”

Netflix

9

“The Blacklist”

Netflix

74

190

241

10

“Zootopia”

Disney+

10

“You”

Netflix

10

“Vampire Diaries”

Netflix

73

183

235

The Nielsen list offers some insight into how people consume shows on streaming services, a question that third-party firms have urgently been trying to figure out a reliable way to answer.

There are some caveats, however. Nielsen’s survey only measures households in the United States, and a view only counts if a show or movie is watched on a TV. If a viewer in the survey watches a show or movie solely on their phone, tablet or computer, Nielsen cannot measure it. Nielsen reported viewership for Netflix, Disney+, Hulu and Amazon but has not yet released figures for Apple TV+, HBO Max or Peacock.

That’s significant because, starting this year, “The Office” is on Peacock, not Netflix. HBO Max has the rights to another enduring sitcom, “Friends.”

“The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Criminal Minds” represent three genres that have been mainstays in American entertainment — workplace comedies, and medical and crime dramas. They also feature a combined library of 830 episodes, which significantly boosted them in the Nielsen lists, which ranked shows based on total minutes watched. (“Grey’s Anatomy” is still running on ABC and is in its 17th season.)

“These programs disproportionately benefited from the fact that they just had a lot of real estate, they have a lot of episodes for people to watch,” said Brian Fuhrer, a senior vice president at Nielsen. “And what they also do is they provide a sense of normalcy. They can go back and find out what’s happening to Dwight Schrute.”

Among original series, the only non-Netflix show in Nielsen’s top 10 list was the popular Disney+ “Star Wars” spinoff, “The Mandalorian.”

The Netflix documentary “Tiger King,” was the only show in Nielsen’s original series list to have as few as eight episodes. It premiered on March 20, just as stay-at-home orders were being issued throughout the country, and a week before the third season of “Ozark” became available on Netflix.

“They both hit right in the heart of the pandemic when people were locked at home, with not much to do,” Mr. Fuhrer said. “They were both viewed extremely heavily.”

While broadcast and cable networks rely on Nielsen to inform them of what people are watching, all of the streaming companies have their own internal metrics. None of them have publicly endorsed Nielsen’s methodologies, nor do they need those figures to determine which shows to promote or cancel.

For more than a year, Netflix has been publicly disclosing worldwide figures for original shows, providing some sense of what people are watching. But its list comes with significant caveats. Netflix counts viewers that watch as little as two minutes of a program, and the service is extremely selective in what shows and movies it discloses figures for. (For instance, Netflix recently said Shonda Rhimes’s new drama, “Bridgerton,” was the service’s fifth most-watched original series, with viewership in the same league as “Tiger King” and “The Queen’s Gambit.”)

Though Netflix dominated the acquired series and original series Nielsen lists, Disney+ overwhelmed its streaming rivals among movies.

Of the top 10 movies, seven belonged to Disney+ and three were from Netflix. Eight of the 10 were animated, with the exceptions being “Hamilton” on Disney+ and “Spenser Confidential,” a Netflix action film starring Mark Wahlberg.

While the list included newer movies like “Frozen 2” and Pixar’s “Onward,” older films like “Moana” and “Zootopia” were also in the top 10. For a list that’s adding up total minutes viewed, it’s not difficult to discern why.

“Kids are watching those movies over and over and over again,” Mr. Fuhrer said.

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