Glenn Garvin’s Top Television Shows of 2020
If 2020 was tragedy, then—as Karl Marx might have predicted, if they’d had television in his day (what would he have made of The Simpsons?) —then 2020 TV was farce. Sarah Palin in a bear costume rapping about big butts! Televised decapitation of a baseball fan! And in possibly the most emblematic moment of all television history, as the pandemic decimated new programming, Fox actually aired a program called Celebrity Watch Party that was nothing but desiccated revenants of the formerly famous sitting around on couches, gazing stuperously at TVs. They found it, for the most part, no more comprehensible than do the rest of us. Ozzy Osbourne, watching The Masked Singer, gaped in bewilderment as the mask was pulled from the face of 20-year-old pop star Jackie Evancho: “Who the fuck was that?” he wondered. Somewhere, no doubt, Evancho was returning the favor.
Television would no doubt have had a tumultuous 2020 even if nobody in America had caught anything worse than a cold. It was expected to be the Year of the Streaming Wars, with two big guns—WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s Peacock—joining the fight for the first time, each with tens of thousands of movies and TV shows in their arsenals, as well as studios to churn out more. (HBO Max’s rights to Friends, one of the most popular shows in TV history, would alone have made it a formidable contender.) And several others entered the fray as well, including Discovery , Apple TV , Disney and Quibi.
The new streaming services were bound to turn TV usage on its head, but nobody could be certain exactly how. Would they obliterate broadcast TV? Or cannibalize Netflix and other existing streamers? Or just cancel one another out? The industry waited nervously for an answer.
Twelve months later, it’s still waiting. TV was certainly stood on its head in 2020, but it’s hard to say exactly by what. During the first four months of the year, the Nielsen folks say, broadcast and cable TV viewership jumped 25 percent. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy that were burning off new episodes completed before the COVID production lockdown began had their highest ratings in years.
But so did 30-year-old reruns of Golden Girls streaming on Hulu, where viewers watch 11 million hours of the show in April alone. Netflix added a record 28 mllion subscribers in the first nine months of the year, and the new Disney channel—aided no doubt by parents desperate to placate hordes of deranged children sent home from school by the virus—sold a booming 86.8 million subscribers in its first year.
By year’s end, it was clear that the gains in streaming were holding, and those in broadcast and cable weren’t. All five of the big broadcast networks lost at least 10 percent of the viewers, and one—the CW, which targets the 18-to-34 age demographic—dropped a whopping 25 percent. Cable didn’t do much better; excluding the news channels—we’ll get to them in a minute—average prime-time ca
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