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Fascinating video graph of the most popular TV series, 1986-2019, shows how much we’ve changed

A look at the fluctuating rank and viewership of the 10 most popular TV shows, 1986-2019, depicts the fracturing of audiences and shifts in taste.

Fascinating video graph of the most popular TV series, 1986-2019, shows how much we’ve changed

What: A data visualization of the top 10 TV shows over the past 33 years.

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Who: The information organizers at Data is Beautiful.

Why we care: The current television landscape looks nothing like any that’s ever existed before. It almost feels antiquated to call content that wasn’t made for a traditional television channel and is primarily watched on laptops and phones “TV shows.” It was a gradual shift from network TV’s monolithic dominance to the infinite splinters of now. Data is Beautiful’s visual graph charting the top 10 shows each year between 1986 and now truly brings home just how far we’ve wandered into the wilderness.

If the PhD student behind this YouTube channel had merely used Nielsen ratings, it would be impossible to capture the incredible diversity of 2019 viewing options. Instead, the data comes from the following sources: “prime-time first 24 hours audience reports, one week of reported statistics for downloaded copies (pirated), one week of streaming services viewership. Numbers are worldwide with significant bias towards US market up until 2002, afterwards it’s balanced by p2p distribution across the globe.”

We start off in what looks like an entirely different world. The Cosby Show reigns supreme with 61.4 million people tuning in each week. Also, viewers in 1986 are obsessed with sitcoms. With the exception of Murder, She Wrote and Dallas, the top 10 is otherwise filled with them. NBC is firmly in control, with four of the top five. Quickly, the ratings start leveling off. By the late-1990s, most of the top 10 has viewership hovering in the 20 millions, whereas in 1986, the average top 10 show reached the 40 millions. In 1999, the top 10 is suddenly dominated by hour-long dramas like JAG, The West Wing, The Sopranos, and the juggernaut ER. By 2003, Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond are the only top 10 sitcoms still standing.

All we can say about 2009 is people must have been pirating the crap out of Dexter, because it’s the #1 show on television. That’s a seismic shift. The viewing community had barely gotten used to the fact that HBO can put out something as culturally relevant as The Sopranos, and now Showtime has a hit? Breaking Bad also exists at this point, but hasn’t absolutely exploded yet. And Game of Thrones is right around the corner. Dexter fades just as quickly as it arrives, but once Game of Thrones hits in 2011, it stays there and continues picking up viewers until it hits the high-50m range. In 2013, Netflix arrives with House of Cards, marking another major turning point. Finally, there’s 2019, where the top 10 includes shows from Netflix (Stranger Things), AMC (The Walking Dead), Adult Swim (Rick and Morty), and Disney+ (The Mandalorian.) The highest rated show on TV this year is, amazingly, NCIS. It has half the viewers The Cosby Show did in 1986.

Watch the full video below, and worry about our unsustainable televisual future.

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