The Top 10 Primetime TV Shows In 2016, According To Nielsen

the walking dead season 7 negan

2016 was an embarrassment of riches in the TV department, with an abundance of top-notch new series complemented by stellar returns from all the usual small screen suspects. And as it happens annually, Nielsen Media Research has released its list of the most-watched TV series of the year, and 2016 had a couple of big surprises in the pack. As well as some big ol' non-surprises.

Without further ado, check out the Top 10 shows of 2016. See what everyone has been watching for the last 12 months, and judge them accordingly.

blue bloods

10. Blue Bloods (CBS)

A drama that regularly makes anyone under 30 flock to Google, Blue Bloods has been about as consistently successful for CBS as any modern series has been over a seven-year span for any network. Led by Tom Selleck and Donnie Wahlberg, among others, Blue Bloods earned an average of 14.41 million viewers per episode in 2016, which is definitely impressive and not far behind last year's 14.9 million average. The drama's numbers in the key 18-49 demographic aren't always so impressive, but they're not so terrible that advertisers are pulling anchor.

thursday night football logo

9. Thursday Night Football (CBS + NFL Network)

An ample amount of fan and analyst speculation went into the worth and future of the NFL's midweek contest, since Thursday Night Football became a target for criticism over its drooping ratings, the questionable quality of the games being chosen, and the issue of keeping players healthy on weeks where they have shortened schedules. None of that got in the way of Thursday Night Football pulling in a combined average of 14.7 million viewers. Some of those higher numbers going into that average very likely came from last season's games, since TNF's average was a whopping 17.66 million viewers in 2015.

designated survivor

8. Designated Survivor (ABC)

The first newcomer to enter 2016's most watched primetime shows, Designated Survivor marked the somewhat unexpected small screen return of 24 vet Kiefer Sutherland, who went from saving the President of the United States to actually playing the POTUS. And viewers were very quick to welcome the actor back, as the post-attack political drama not only drew in massive audiences for each episode, but it also broke records in delayed viewing metrics. Everybody wanted to watch Designated Survivor whenever they could, and 14.91 million people did just that for the first half of Season 1, on average

football night in america

7. Football Night in America (NBC)

The NFL strikes again! This time, it's not even an actual game that's getting recognized, but rather the Sunday Night Football pregame show on NBC, which goes by the name Football Night in America. Led by big names like Bob Costas and Mike Tirico, Football Night in America has the advantage of delivering all of the highlights from the day's earlier games while also getting fans pumped for the contest that's yet to play. In 2016, the pre-game averaged 14.95 million viewers, a down-tick from the 17.66 million that watched last year.

ncis new orleans

6. NCIS: New Orleans (CBS)

Currently in Season 3, NCIS: New Orleans has obviously had no problem bringing viewers down to watch Scott Bakula and the rest of the ensemble take on Big Easy crimes usually steeped in military and government life. The drama actually moved up a spot on the list from last year, though its audience isn't as big. In 2016, NCIS: New Orleans netted 15.61 million pairs of eyes each week, give or take, while last year's average audience was upwards of 17.31 million. Do you celebrate going from #7 to #6 more, or do you mourn the loss of 1.7 million average viewers?

bull michael weatherly

5. Bull (CBS)

Not all actors possess the immaculate job timing of Michael Weatherly, who shocked legions of fans when he announced he would be leaving NCIS after 13 seasons, and then immediately turned around and signed on to lead the Dr. Phil quasi-bio-series Bull, which centers on a genius analyst whose psychological talents are best used in and around the courtroom. The highest-ranking TV debut of the year, Bull roped in 17.64 million viewers an episode on average, and that's despite mostly lukewarm to negative reviews. But being a former NCIS star in a show airing immediately after NCIS certainly helped to balance those reviews out and then some.

the walking dead season 7 negan

4. The Walking Dead (AMC)

Few TV events got more buzz online and beyond than The Walking Dead, thanks to its divisive season-ending cliffhanger, and the ratings for both that ep and the Season 7 premiere were pretty incredible. But viewers have been falling out regularly in the weeks since Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Negan became a foul-mouthed mainstay, and opinions about the content have been pretty split, too. (Here's what I thought about it.) The Walking Dead still averaged 18.24 million people per episode in 2016, which is a damned sight better than everything else save for three series, though it did drop from last year's average of 19.69 million.


3. Sunday Night Football (NBC)

If you thought the NFL wasn't going to show up again on this list, then you probably missed the pre-game show's appearance, and are also keenly unaware of the organization's massive audience. While Monday Night Football used to be the weekly gridiron ratings king, ESPN doesn't do the numbers NBC does, and Sunday Night Football's 19.28 million-strong viewership once again makes the telecast the top unscripted program in primetime for the year. The signs of crumbling are definitely there, though, as that total is shockingly lower than SNF's 2015 average of 23.29 million viewers.



2016 was an extremely eventful one for the ratings-friendly drama NCIS, and the biggest headline was obviously actor Michael Weatherly exiting the show. Weatherly was replaced by not one but three new cast members - Wilmer Valderrama, Jennifer Esposito and Duane Henry - and viewers have been very welcoming. (It helps that Weatherly can be seen right after NCIS ends.) And though actress Cote de Pablo didn't return, the show effectively sealed up Ziva David's story. Big changes haven't been such a bad thing, either, as the show moved from the third to second spot with 19.88 million people tuning in on average, as compared to last year's 20.91 million.

the big bang theory

1. The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

No need to call any repairmen to see if something is wrong with Nielsen's numbers, everyone, as the number one show of 2016 is exactly what we expected it to be: the superhero-embracing network stalwart The Big Bang Theory. Taking back the top spot from last year's SNF winner, the CBS sitcom had a lot of big elements going for it in the past year, and an average of 19.93 million folks watched Sheldon and Amy's post-sexual relationship, Bernadette and Howard awaiting a new baby, and Leonard and Penny surviving their respective families. The show's future is still in question (but not necessarily in jeopardy), but we assume we'll see The Big Bang Theory right around this top spot when 2017 comes to a close.

Did you guys guess everything that made up this year's most-watched TV shows? Head to our midseason premiere schedule to see what shows will be premiering and returning when 2017 gets here.

Nick Venable
Assistant Managing Editor

Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.