If you read about TV ratings ever — alert! you are now! — you have seen lots of headlines recently about the humungo ratings for AMC's The Walking Dead, History's The Bible miniseries, and A&E's Duck Dynasty. Yes, there is a colossal shift going on in television these days: A big basic-cable hit can do as well as or better than shows on broadcast TV (meaning ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and the CW). And yes, viewers who have cable are agnostic about whether the scripted or reality show they love is on a major network like CBS or a once-niche cable channel like History.
It was not always this way. And while the day when the entire ad-based, cable-based, linear TV business model is blown up entirely has yet to arrive, this equalizing moment between cable and network television is an important step.
However! There still are so few massively popular shows on cable television, which you wouldn't necessarily realize from reading the media coverage. Looking at the month of March across cable, only nine shows in total got more than 5 million viewers (excluding sports and two one-off specials, Nickelodeon's Kids' Choice Awards and Disney's Wizards of Waverly Place reunion, The Wizards Return). Those nine shows are no-joke huge — even though several of them may surprise you, since they're almost never written about — and they are the symbols of this new world.
But that only nine shows spread over a total of 39 hours in an entire month brought in more than 5 million viewers demonstrates that those shows are aberrations. Over on the networks, even beleaguered NBC seeks to draw more than 5 million viewers for a moderate hit. And if No. 1 CBS had a show that got 5 million viewers, it would turn pale, vomit, and cancel it immediately.
A few qualifiers before we get to the list. First, the analysis within this story is based purely on total viewers and mass, since it is those measurements that are wowing television pundits and armchair ratings analysts. Cable channels that successfully target specific demographics, and sell to advertisers that seek those groups, and therefore would never hit an audience of many millions, are doing something different from History and A&E and USA. For example, Pretty Little Liars, ABC Family's mystery, is dominant in the 12-to-34 female age group, and a total phenomenon, actually, in the way its audience uses social media to discuss it. But even its recent (insane) Season 3 finale drew under 3 million viewers: so big compared to many cable shows in this fractured media world, and a brand-defining hit for ABC Family. Yet tiny.
Also, I picked March because the chatter lately about cable ratings has turned into a scream. But there are some popular shows on cable that simply aren't on right now: TNT's Rizzoli & Isles and Major Crimes, FX's Sons of Anarchy, and USA Network's Suits are broadly popular and are currently in between seasons. And the way premium channels like HBO and Showtime work is they care about the cumulative viewership of a show since they're selling subscriptions — things like HBO's True Blood and Game of Thrones get good live tune-ins, and that is nice for them, but it's not really relevant here.
And so! Here are those nine shows that are the exceptions, not the rules, in an otherwise low-rated cable world.
1) The Walking Dead, AMC
Holy moly, this show. If AMC's other marquee series Mad Men and Breaking Bad are for the arthouse, The Walking Dead is the summer blockbuster in a kazillion theaters. Is it setting the high watermark for all time for a scripted cable show? Maybe. And among 18- to 49-year-olds, the show is No. 1 across all television. Insanity. Unprecedented.
Here are the dirty details of The Walking Dead's broadcasts for March. Oh, and an explanatory note for all of the ratings used in this story: Live+7 numbers are the ratings a show gets within seven days of its broadcast; Live+Same Day ratings are how many viewers watch a show live and almost live (before 3 a.m. the next day). The Live+7 ratings take time for Nielsen to compile, so programs listed here that aired March 18 and later are using Live+Same Day numbers. This distinction is important because The Walking Dead's finale from this past Sunday night will definitely end up being its most-watched episode, because it set a series record, but that data isn't available yet.
March 10 episode (Live+7 rating): 15.1 million viewers
March 3 episode (Live+7 rating): 14.9 million viewers
March 17 episode (Live+7 rating): 14.4 million viewers
March 31 episode (Live+Same Day rating): 12.4 million viewers
March 24 episode (Live+Same Day rating): 11 million
2) The Bible, History
How fascinating was this? History, which is killing it overall as you'll see below, was the No. 1 cable channel in March (tied with USA), and just closed out its most-watched first quarter ever, aired this grand experiment miniseries from Survivor/The Voice creator Mark Burnett and his wife, Touched by an Angel actress Roma Downey, and it just blew up expectations. Sequel? Perhaps based on the Satan character?
March 3 episode (Live+7 rating): 15 million viewers
March 17 episode (Live+7 rating): 13 million viewers
March 10 episode (Live+7 rating): 12.7 million viewers
March 31 episode (Live+Same Day rating): 11.7 million viewers
March 24 episode (Live+Same Day rating): 10.3 million viewers
3) Duck Dynasty, A&E
I mean. What? But it's true. The show's enormous reach has propelled A&E to the best quarter in its history, and March was its most-watched month ever. (And A&E has been around since 1984.) It's gone down since its leviathan of a third-season premiere, but even lower, it's a force. Duck Dynasty, ladies and gentlemen! (Oh, and if you're wondering why a February episode is included in March ratings, it's because Nielsen weeks are from Monday-Sunday, which last month included some February dates. Duck Dynasty also airs two half-hour episodes back-to-back, thus the repeated dates. For some reason, the 10:30 p.m. ones generally do better than the 10 p.m. ones. No idea why. Why, Duck fans?)
Feb. 27, 10:30 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 12.6 million viewers
March 6, 10:30 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 12.4 million viewers
Feb. 27, 10 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 12.2 million viewers
March 13, 10:30 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 11.9 million viewers
March 6, 10 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 11.5 million viewers
March 13, 10 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 11.4 million viewers
March 27, 10 p.m. episode (Live+Same Day rating): 8.5 million viewers
March 20, 10:30 p.m. episode (Live+Same Day rating): 7.8 million viewers
March 20, 10 p.m. episode (Live+Same Day rating): 7.7 million viewers
March 27, 10:30 p.m. episode (Live+Same Day rating): 5.3 million viewers
4) Vikings, History
This show is History's first scripted series — as distinct from The Bible, a miniseries — and it's been airing behind and benefiting from the Biblical behemoth. It's done well, but it would regularly lose about half of that audience — which still made it a big show. But now that The Bible has concluded, let's see what happens. The most recent two episodes, even with The Bible as a lead-in, didn't get over our 5-million-viewer cutoff since the Live+Same Day ratings haven't yet been calculated.
March 3 episode (Live+7 rating): 7.9 million viewers
March 17 episode (Live+7 rating): 6.2 million viewers
March 10 episode (Live+7 rating): 6 million viewers
5) Pawn Stars, History
Again with the History channel. This show doesn't get the publicity of Duck Dynasty, but it has been secretly gargantuan for six seasons. There would be more episodes on this list, but the finale was March 11 (it too airs two half-hour episodes back-to-back).
Feb. 25, 10:30 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 6.5 million viewers
March 11, 10:30 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 6.4 million viewers
Feb. 25, 10 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 6.2 million viewers
March 11, 10 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 6.1 million viewers
March 4, 10:30 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 6 million viewers
March 4, 10 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.8 million viewers
6) WWE Monday Night Raw, USA Network
There was a time when USA scripted originals — and some prime-time reruns of House, NCIS, and Law & Order: SVU — would have been all over this list. But USA is in a slight fallow period at the moment, even though it is still usually in or near first place in prime time. In other words, USA doesn't have any new breakout hits right now, like a Burn Notice of yesteryear, or a Monk, which started the entire scripted cable explosion. But USA is consistent and strong in almost every time period, so it's still doing well. This is all to say that WWE Monday Night Raw, with its guaranteed audience for three hours from 8 to 11 p.m., is USA's biggest ratings-getter right now. Surely the goal of the executives at the channel is to make that not the case, but for now, it's fine: Raw is on 52 weeks a year, after all. (Each hour is broken up separately by Nielsen. Sorry.)
March 4, 9 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.8 million viewers
March 4, 10 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.4 million viewers
March 4, 8 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.4 million viewers
Feb. 25, 8 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.4 million viewers
March 11, 8 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.4 million viewers
March 11, 9 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.3 million viewers
Feb. 25, 9 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.2 million viewers
Feb. 25, 10 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.2 million viewers
March 11, 10 p.m. episode (Live+7 rating): 5.1 million viewers
7) Swamp People, History
I watch a lot of television. A lot of television. But if one of the Swamp People jumped out at me, I am positive I would not recognize him and would simply be scared instead of feeling the thrill of a star sighting. Who knew with this one. Seriously.
March 7 episode (Live+7 rating): 5.4 million viewers
Feb. 28 episode (Live+7 rating): 5.3 million viewers
March 14 episode (Live+7 rating): 5 million viewers
8) American Pickers, History
History. Again. I'm just going to admit here that I always thought this show was about farmers. It sounded bucolic to me. But no, it is about treasure hunting of the Dumpster-diving kind. As punishment for my ignorance, I resolve to watch American Pickers and will probably start liking it and having to watch it regularly.
Feb. 25 episode (Live+7 rating): 5.4 million viewers
March 4 episode (Live+7 rating): 5.2 million viewers
March 11 episode (Live+7 rating): 5.2 million viewers
9) Talking Dead, AMC
Because of The Walking Dead's popularity and the enormous amount of PR and goodwill Mad Men and Breaking Bad bring in, AMC seems more successful than it actually is. Other than some excellent scripted programming, the channel doesn't have much else going on during the rest of its hours of existence. It has movies, but not like FX and TNT do. And they've been branching out into reality programming, but so far, nothing's hit. In other words, it's brilliant that AMC has a live talk show about The Walking Dead that airs right after each episode ends. Milk that thing for all it's worth. Not every episode of Talking Dead hits over 5 million, as you see, but so what? It's a live show discussing a TV show, and I'm guessing it costs $1.35 to make. A Nobel Prize-winning idea, as far as I'm concerned.
March 31 episode (Live+Same Day rating): 5.2 million viewers
CORRECTION:Talking Dead is an hour-long show, not a half-hour (as it once was). The story has been updated to reflect the correction. (4/4/13)