May 18, 2021

By Nicole Bitette
In 2021, several of ViacomCBS’ biggest ratings hits have emphasized storytelling that is both gripping and relatable.

It was a water cooler moment—without the water cooler. On March 7, more than 27 million viewers tuned into CBS to watch Oprah’s primetime interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, about their exit from the Royal Family.

Around 8 million of those viewers came to the network for the first time and an additional 3 million tuned into CBS This Morning the day after, for more insight from Oprah and clips from the interview. That day, the morning show was #1 in total viewers and A25-54—the first time it was #1 ahead of Today and Good Morning America in both demos since at least 1991. The world caught on too, as over 70 million viewers across 20 countries in total watched the special on international outlets where the interview was licensed.

“TV is still the medium that gives you those unifying moments. Ultimately, TV makes culture,” explains Radha Subramanyam, president, chief research and analytics officer, CBS. “Everybody was talking to coworkers and family about Harry and Meghan.”

It was Markle’s candor in the interview that drew the audience, according to Subramanyam. Viewers sympathized with Markle’s experience and related to her struggles with mental health.

“Humanity is what succeeds on our platforms,” says Subramanyam. “I think that’s what’s so special about us. We’re bringing communities together, at a time when it’s most needed.”

Culture-defining franchises

With engaging specials and inclusive messages, flagship brands across ViacomCBS have provided must-see moments for fans.

“Broadcast remains the only place where you can amass large audiences at a given moment, and therefore create an event,” says Subramanyam.

For example, the #1 cable telecast of 2021 to date is the South Park Vaccination Special on Comedy Central, with people ages 18 to 34 and males (18 to 49 and 18 to 34). Also the #1 most social cable prime comedy of the year, the special event was second only to the South Park Pandemic Special, which aired in 2020. South Park, which has been on the air since 1997, is one of the company’s most recognizable series with repeatable catchphrases and massive amounts of consumer products.

 

"Broadcast remains the only place where you can amass large audiences at a given moment."

Radha Subramanyam

Chief research and analytics officer, CBS Entertainment Group

South Park is a cultural phenomenon, and has always reflected current events through satire,” says Laurel Weir, EVP, strategic insights & research, MTV Entertainment Group. “The millions of viewers who love South Park use it to deal with what’s happening in the world. That’s what makes the Comedy Central brand so strong. It hits topics head-on, but in a way that we can laugh through.”

MTV’s The Challenge is another long-running ViacomCBS franchise with a devoted audience, with more than a dozen seasons since its debut in 1998 and several spin-offs. The most recent season of the franchise, The Challenge: Double Agents, is MTV’s most successful series of 2021, ranking as the #1 cable series in the first quarter of 2021, among viewers ages 18 to 34. The full season of the series recorded its best share ever in franchise history and it was one of the highest rated seasons in the last 9 years, second only to the prior season, Total Madness.

It all goes back to the power of IP, says Weir. The series brings together familiar faces from MTV’s other popular series, drawing viewers in.

 

"Ultimately, TV makes culture."

“The competition reality genre has evolved culturally. It is less about the challenges and the prize and more about the growth journeys of the characters,” says Weir. “You have these incredible character arcs on the show that viewers really love.”

Another ViacomCBS competition series rallying its audience together: RuPaul’s Drag Race. The 13th season premiered on the first day of 2021 with the message “New Year, New Ru” and a heavy focus on inclusivity, a key element of the show. The premiere was the most-watched episode in the franchise’s history, simulcast across ViacomCBS’ cable networks, with 1.73 million total viewers (L3). On VH1 alone, it was up 13% compared to the Season 12 premiere. RuPaul’s Drag Race also has the most Emmy® Awards wins by a reality competition show, with 19 wins and 39 Emmy® nominations.

As the season came to an end on April 23, the finale delivered 1.2 million total viewers—the most since Season 10—and it was the best share ever for an episode. Season 13 was also the best share in franchise history. The series is currently the #1 most social cable program of 2021 thus far.

As the season came to an end on April 23, the finale delivered 1.2 million total viewers—the most since Season 10—and it was the best share ever for an episode. Season 13 was also the best share in franchise history. The series is currently the #1 most social cable program of 2021 thus far.

Drag Race has always been a driving force in pop culture. We hit on another cultural moment with the series around the premiere—people hoped things would finally turn around once the year changed,” adds Weir. “There’s an escapist benefit to the series and that’s something we all need, now more than ever.”

 

Gripping star-powered storytelling

According to Subramanyam, the feeling people get watching RuPaul is similar to what attracts viewers to The Equalizer, now the #1 series—and #1 new series—on all of broadcast, averaging 13.76 million viewers. The series premiere after the Super Bowl delivered 20M+ viewers, and was the most-watched TV entertainment program since last year’s Oscars. It also had the largest streaming audience for any CBS series debut over the past two seasons.

Seeing Queen Latifah as the hero is not what people typically expect, Subramanyam explains—and it’s a welcome sight.

“This is a woman of color, who is so likable, human, and flawed,” says Subramanyam. “She’s like all the moms trying to juggle their careers and lives and teenage children—except she happens to be solving the world’s problems.”

Audiences are connecting with stories that are above all relatable. BET’s Sistas, created by Tyler Perry, has been the top cable scripted series this broadcast season for African Americans ages 18-49—all because it shines a light on the everyday ups and downs of its Black women characters. And the SHOWTIME series Your Honor, starring Bryan Cranston as a judge desperate to protect his son, was a standout hit this winter. Peaking at 8+ million viewers across platforms, the series became the #1 SHOWTIME debut season ever and the most-streamed series ever on the network.

“There is so much conflict, but there is still culture that can bring people together,” adds Subramanyam. “And that value is represented by all of this ViacomCBS content.”

 

 
Related Articles