Published: January 2, 2011
By Brian Stelter
Historians may someday note with wonder that by the end of 2010, at least six cable television shows were about auctioneers and pawnbrokers. And all were considered successes by their respective channels.
Isaac Brekken for The New York Times
A crew in Las Vegas filming an episode of “Pawn Stars,” a reality show on the History Channel.
Countless shows were about cops and robbers, too, and countless hours were devoted to competitive singing, dancing and even figure skating, and they each found an audience, proving again that television remains a refuge in the media revolution. (Except, perhaps, for figure skating. In December, ABC’s “Skating With the Stars” struggled to keep a mere one million viewers ages 18 to 49.)
Americans watched more television than ever in 2010, according to the Nielsen Company. Total viewing of broadcast networks and basic cable channels rose about 1 percent for the year, to an average of 34 hours per person per week. The generation-long shift to cable from broadcast continued, but subtly, as the smallest of the big four broadcast networks, NBC, still retained more than twice as many viewers as the largest basic cable channel, USA.
Cable hits like “Jersey Shore” on MTV and “The Walking Dead” on AMC were showered with media attention and affection, but the most popular new show was CBS’s “Hawaii Five-0,” a revival of a 40-year-old drama.
CBS, stable as always, was the No. 1 network among total viewers for 51 out of 52 weeks, and three of its new shows, “Hawaii Five-0,” “Blue Bloods” and “Mike & Molly,” landed in the top 20 for the year, the only new shows to do so. CBS also used the Super Bowl to introduce the reality show “Undercover Boss,” which cracked the top 25.
“CBS has been able to replenish its lineup as older shows fade,” said Brad Adgate, the senior vice president for research at Horizon Media. He contrasted CBS with ABC, which bid adieu to “Lost” in May and seeded no new hits since.
Among viewers ages 18 to 49, Fox again ranked first for the year, with a 3.0 rating on average, in part because of “American Idol” and one of the breakout hits of 2009, “Glee.”
Nielsen noted in an end-of-the-year recap that eight of the 10 highest-rated telecasts of the year were football games. The two others were the Academy Awards and the premiere of “Undercover Boss,” which followed the Super Bowl.
The biggest gainer on the broadcast ledger was a Spanish-language player, Univision, which is drawing more attention for its ratings victories. For the year it averaged a 1.5 rating among 18- to 49-year-olds and 3.7 million total viewers. On an otherwise quiet Monday last week, the finale of one of its telenovelas, “Soy Tu Dueña,” or “I’m Your Owner,” averaged four million viewers in that demographic, beating all the English-language networks for the night.
On cable, USA remained the most popular in prime time. Despite some signs of audience erosion, its C.I.A. drama, “Covert Affairs,” was the most popular nonsports program on cable among younger viewers, beating some new dramas on the broadcast networks. USA’s rival TNT had a breakout hit in “Rizzoli & Isles,” an opposites-attract crime-solving show.
Despite a vast oil spill and a midterm election, all of the cable news channels posted declines from 2009. The Fox News Channel remained the most popular of the group by far. MSNBC celebrated a historic win in prime time over CNN, having beaten that channel for the first time among all viewers. (In 2009, it beat CNN for the first time among 25- to 54-year-olds.)
The bad news for CNN did not end there. It lost more viewers than any other cable channel, according to Mr. Adgate’s research, ending the year with an average of 578,000 viewers in prime time, down 34 percent from a 2009 average of 874,000 viewers. Two other channels, VH1 and the Hallmark Channel, also lost more than a quarter of their audience.
The History Channel and Ion Television each grew by more than 25 percent year-over-year. History was helped by “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers,” trash-into-treasure reality shows that spawned imitators on other channels.
TLC now has “Pawn Queens,” Discovery now has “Auction Kings,” Spike now has “Auction Hunters,” and A&E now has “Storage Wars.” Spike, which had a tough year, went so far as to brag in a December news release that “Auction Hunters” had been beating “Auction Kings”; both shows have been renewed.
Perhaps the most eye-popping growth on television came from the relatively small Investigation Discovery, or I.D., which specializes in nonfiction crime stories and is owned by Discovery Communications. I.D. averaged 283,000 viewers at any given time, a gain of 64 percent over the previous year.
I.D. did it by bulking up on repeatable shows like “On the Case With Paula Zahn,” hosted by the former CNN anchor, and “Who the (Bleep) Did I Marry,” about crimes that ruin relationships.