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The Most Watched Cable Shows During COVID-19

Harry Emerson / Updated Mar 19, 2024 | Pub. Aug 07, 2020

Whether you were forced home because of an office closure or a lay-off, many of us have been watching more T.V. due to the mitigation measures put in place to fight Covid-19. After all, what else is there to do? With many businesses closed, our options were limited, and there were only so many walks to go on or books to read. Besides, who doesn’t love to nestle up on the couch and binge on a great television show?

Our obsession with all things T.V. led us to wonder which shows were the most popular during this time when the Coronavirus had everyone staying at home. Many studios have stopped producing new content to adhere to the guidelines set forth by governments, so many of us have been turning to our old favorites. But a few new things have made a splash during these difficult times.

We looked at ratings and other viewer numbers to figure out which cable shows were the most popular during COVID-19. Read on to see what we found.

Most Popular Cable Shows in the Early Days of COVID-19

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the novel Coronavirus to be a pandemic. The United States, however, seemed to be spared. Or so we thought. For several weeks after this declaration, we watched countries worldwide struggle to keep up with the spread of the disease.

It was a simpler time in which the future seemed much more predictable. And it was also a time when we watched T.V. to relax, catch up with the newest shows, and spend time with friends.

Then the number of cases in the U.S. began to rise so dramatically that governors around the country were forced to issue stay-at-home orders and mandate the closure of schools, offices, and other businesses.

As the pandemic worsened, along with the situation inside the United States, more and more people began flipping on their T.V. during the day, often because there was literally nothing else we could do.

During the week that the WHO declared the pandemic, these were the most-watched cable T.V. shows in the United States, according to data collected by Statista:

Most of these shows are aired weekly on network television, but almost none of them are currently airing new episodes. Of course, part of this is the usual wind-down leading into summer, but many shows had to cut their seasons short due to the pandemic.

Also, something worth noting is that none of these shows (except the Democratic presidential debate) are on news channels, something that changed as Americans were forced to go home and shelter to fight the pandemic.

The Most Popular Shows During COVID-19

Below you will find all the information we could collect about the most popular cable shows during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cable News Has Seen Dramatic Spikes in Viewership

Unsurprisingly, cable news stations and shows have been amongst the biggest “winners" – a term we use lightly since there were no winners during this crisis – over the past few months.

The major 24-hour news channels – Fox, MSNBC, and CNN – are where many people turn to get the latest information about the pandemic (and when we might return to normal). But the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, and the protests that ensued also had people tuning into cable news networks more than ever before.

To give you an idea, April 2020 was one of the best months for these cable news networks in history, with primetime shows hosted by the likes of Andersen Cooper, Bret Baier, Chris Cuomo (who got the virus), Mike Brzezinski, Tucker Carlson, Joe Scarborough, and Nicole Wallace experiencing their best months ever.

To give you an idea, here are the average primetime viewership numbers for the three major networks during April 2020:

  • Fox News: 4.14 million viewers
  • MSNBC: 2.47 million viewers
  • CNN: 2.16 million viewers

In May, the numbers dropped slightly, but they were once again better than average. To give you an idea, here are the viewership numbers for the six most popular cable T.V. shows during May of 2020:

In May, however, CNN saw the most considerable increase in the number of viewers compared to the same month last year; the network saw a 117 percent improvement in May 2020 compared with May 2019.

FOX News, led by Tucker Carlson, dominated the coveted 18-54 age bracket with 558,000 viewers, a 48 percent increase from last year.


Clearly, cable news has been a popular choice for people during this time defined by uncertainty and fear. Part of this is because people are home all the time (we all know those people who leave the news on in the background while they work and do other things.) Still, the rise in prime time numbers suggests that more and more people are tuning into news broadcasts to find out what is happening in the country and the world during this crazy time in which we now live.

However, where people choose to get their news has impacted how this pandemic has played out. Cable news shows on all networks are biased, and they do this for a reason; they are more exclusive than network shows and can, therefore, tailor their content to more specific audiences. In an era where access to the “right" information is essential for your safety and that of others, these biases can have real impacts.

To cite one example, prominent FOX News personalities, mainly Sean Hannity, downplayed the virus’s seriousness, claiming it was the same as the flu and not any more dangerous than the disease that has surfaced every winter for the last century or more.

Other personalities on the network, such as Carlson, were quicker to issue warnings to their audiences. A study found more cases of COVID-19 amongst viewers of Hannity than Carlson. Still, Hannity viewers also took an average of five extra days to begin changing their behaviors to be more in line with CDC guidelines than other FOX viewers.

Of course, these results, which came from a study conducted by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago, do not mean that FOX viewers are more likely to get the virus. Instead, it shows how one news station’s political biases may have helped propagate misinformation in the early days of the pandemic, which helped contribute to the rapid spread of the virus and delay the implementation of tactics needed to flatten the curve and control the virus.

FOX News rejected the legitimacy of this study, calling it a “reckless disregard for the truth." No matter where you stand, it’s a stark reminder of how much of an influence the news has on people’s behavior and the consequences of it.

Network News Remains King

While the numbers from the cable news channels are impressive and show that more and more Americans have turned to these sources for their news during the pandemic, these channels are still not the most popular in the television news market.

Traditional news broadcasts from the major networks – ABC, CBS, and NBC – have still been the most popular news broadcasts in the country amid the pandemic.

During April, ABC’s World News Tonight was the most popular primetime news broadcast, with an average of 10.2 million viewers. The second was NBC’s Nightly News, with 9.6 million viewers on average, and the third was CBS Evening News, with 6.7 million viewers.

Top Network Shows in April, May, and June

April was the first full month of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. We already know that cable news was experiencing a big rating boom as a result, but we wanted to see if this was a trend across the board.

To do this, we looked at shows with the highest viewership numbers during April. We found, however, that there weren’t too many surprises in the top ten. Here’s what we found:

Top Shows in April 2020:

According to a report from the Associated Press, here are the ten most popular cable shows during April 2020:

NCIS, 60 Minutes, Blue Bloods, and The Voice, which were all in the top ten in March, remained in this elite group of shows. The NFL Draft, which at the time was one of the few “live sports" events people could watch, helped buoy ESPN into being the second most popular cable T.V. channel in April behind FOX News.

During April, CBS was the most-watched network, having five out of the ten most popular shows during this period. It was followed by NBC, ABC, Fox, Univision, ION Television, Telemundo, and the C.W.

We could have looked at more months, but things got tricky since many states began “reopening" by the end of April, which put people back to work and took them away from the T.V.; as a result, we had to look at other ways of determining the most popular cable T.V. shows during COVID-19.

What People Are Watching in 2022

Now that we’re in 2022 and much of the pandemic is behind us, what are people watching on cable? As we already discussed, cable news dominates the ratings on cable television. In fact, if we included it, there wouldn’t be anything else to talk about. Yet otherwise, we see most of the things people have been watching for some time. Here are some of the top shows as of June 2022:

Top Cable TV Shows June 2022

Here we will see much of the reality T.V. that dominated cable ratings before, as well as a few scripted series. Essentially, as of this writing, T.V. production and viewing have returned to normal after the pandemic, and we will see the more minor shifts in programming that signal the changing times as we always have.

Turning Back to the Classics

Although cable and network news, along with traditional network programming, have done well during the pandemic regarding ratings, these programs are certainly not the only thing people watch.

In many cases, viewers are turning back the clock and watching shows that are either no longer on the air or are only available as reruns.

A study of 7,000 households across the nation conducted by looked at what people were watching most in each state across the U.S. Here’s what they found:

  • Friends, which went off the air in 2004 (yes, sixteen years ago), was the most popular T.V. show in 11 states, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Three of the country’s most populated states are on this list, suggesting Friends might be the most popular show during COVID-19, making it the most popular during the pandemic.
  • Rick and Morty was the second most popular in terms of the number of states, with residents in four states – Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada – saying it’s been their preferred T.V. show for passing the time during the pandemic. But these are hardly four densely-populated states, suggesting Rick and Morty might not be among the country’s most popular.
  • Three states – Connecticut, New Jersey, and Rhode Island – said that This Is Us was the show they’ve watched most during the pandemic.

After these shows, though, there is pretty good diversity amongst the states regarding what people watch. Here’s a list of all the most popular shows in each state:

  • Shameless (Michigan and Wisconsin)
  • The Office (Nebraska and North Dakota)
  • Gilmore Girls (Arkansas and Oklahoma)
  • Law & Order: SVU (Alabama and Mississippi)
  • The Walking Dead (Kentucky and South Carolina)
  • Star Trek (Washington and Oregon)
  • Parks and Recreation (Hawaii)
  • Supernatural (Kansas)
  • Seinfeld (Vermont)
  • Game of Thrones (Delaware)
  • Criminal Minds (Tennessee)
  • Chicago P.D. (Pennsylvania)

The remaining states said there were watching more than one show. Here’s a list of some of these programs:

  • The Big Bang Theory
  • Grey’s Anatomy
  • The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
  • Ozark
  • NCIS
  • The Bachelor
  • The Midnight Gospel
  • Too Hot to Handle

As you can see, there is a nice mixture of new and old. Still, with so many classic shows making this list, it’s evident that people are looking for comfort, downtime, and reliable entertainment during these trying times when many of us are stuck at home.

Top Streaming Shows

Most of our focus up until now has been on cable T.V. shows, but obviously, that’s not the only way people watch T.V. these days. Streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, DC Universe, and CBS All Access have also been amongst the most popular during the pandemic.

In terms of demand (how streaming services talk about the number of viewers), these are the most popular streaming shows during COVID-19, according to The Observer:

Interesting that neither Hulu nor Amazon Prime has a show on the list, but these platforms are not exactly known for their original content. Therefore, it should not be surprising that Netflix and Disney+ have been dominating.

Of course, we would be remiss not to mention Tiger King, one of the most popular pieces of content during the pandemic, but since this was more of a special and not a recurring show, it doesn’t make it onto a lot of lists.

One last thing to point out is that subscriptions have risen for nearly all streaming services, which is further evidence that people are turning to their T.V. for entertainment (and distraction) during these extraordinary times.

Happy TV Watching

While the news and the classics have been the most popular cable T.V. during the pandemic (so far), these are not the only things that people are watching. One of the most exciting things about this current era in television is that there is so much that we can watch, and almost all of it can be accessed whenever we want, either on-demand or through a streaming platform.

Hopefully, all this coronavirus madness will begin to fade in the coming months, giving us fewer reasons to watch T.V.; but who are we kidding!? We all love to flop on the couch and spend a few hours zoning out and following our favorite characters and stories. So, no matter what the future brings, we wish you happy times while watching T.V.