How Comfort Shows Conquered Streaming TV

In a year when a fractured, Netflix-led landscape trotted out hundreds of new original series, audiences turned to library series like 'Suits,' 'Grey’s Anatomy' and 'Gilmore Girls,' which claimed all of the top 10 spots in Nielsen’s 2023 tally

Published Time: 06.02.2024 - 16:31:16 Modified Time: 06.02.2024 - 16:31:16

In a year when a fractured, Netflix-led landscape trotted out hundreds of new original series, audiences turned to library series like 'Suits,' 'Grey’s Anatomy' and 'Gilmore Girls,' which claimed all of the top 10 spots in Nielsen’s 2023 tally.

The runaway success of Suits on Netflix in 2023 gave the show the biggest year ever in the short history of streaming viewing measurement. It also headlined a banner year for library series (aka shows that ended their run years ago) across a number of platforms: The top 10 overall titles in Nielsen’s year-end rankings are all acquired shows, the first time that’s happened in the four years streaming rankings have been publicly available.

Viewers spent a lot more time on streaming platforms last year than the year before — streaming use rose by 21 percent, according to Nielsen — and licensed shows are responsible for a lot of that increased time. The top 10 original streaming series last year combined drove 133.6 billion minutes of viewing, accounting for about two-thirds of 2022’s top 10 original shows (198.3 billion minutes). Another way to look at the steep decline in originals viewing: Even discounting the blockbuster run of Stranger Things (52 billion minutes) from 2022’s total, the remaining nine shows still come out ahead of the 2023 top 10.

“We definitely had a lesser number of originals in 2023,” notes Brian Fuhrer, Nielsen’s senior vp product strategy and thought leadership. “As a result, the introduction of huge new blockbuster originals that we’re used to, that really wasn’t the case this year.” Fuhrer cites successes like Netflix’s The Night Agent and Ginny & Georgia and the steady, months-long performance of Ted Lasso (the year’s top original show) on Apple TV+, but none of them approached the huge numbers of Stranger Things or Ozark, which broke the 30 billion-minute mark in 2020 and 2022.

The biggest acquired shows, however, had a huge jump in viewing time: The top 10 accounted for 339.5 billion minutes of viewing, easily the highest total in the four years Nielsen has released year-end totals. The total time for the top 10 library series was up almost 41 percent versus 2022. Taking Suits and its 57.7 billion minutes off the board still yields a 17 percent bump for the remaining nine series over the full top 10 in 2022.

Those 10 shows — the others are kids’ favorites Bluey and Cocomelon, the long-running Canadian drama Heartland and broadcast staples NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, The Big Bang Theory, Gilmore Girls, Friends and Supernatural — accounted for about 3 percent of all streaming viewing just on their own. There were some 25,000 shows and movies available on streaming services in the U.S. at any given point during the year, meaning that those 10 make up just a few hundredths of one percent of the available options.

The top 10 streaming movies of 2023 are also -

a testament to library titles — particularly when it comes to films aimed at kids and families. The two biggest movies, Moana (11.6 billion minutes of viewing) and Encanto (9.7 billion), have been on Disney+ for more than two years and are champions of repeat viewing. So are titles like Minions: The Rise of Gru (No. 5, 7.1 billion minutes) and Frozen (No. 7, 6.5 billion) — the latter of which didn’t crack Nielsen’s top 10 charts all year but averaged a steady 122 million minutes of viewing per week.

Corporate spending cuts play a role in the imbalance — fewer original shows as a whole means fewer chances for something to become a hit. It also means that as the blank-check era of streaming ends, part of the value proposition for streamers will likely be the presence of shows with deep catalogs. No original scripted streaming show has ever crossed the 100-episode mark, but hundreds of series that originated on broadcast networks have. High episode counts make for high engagement, which in turn gives streamers a decent return on investment even for nine-figure licensing deals like the ones Max inked to make The Big Bang Theory and Friends exclusive to the platform.

The rediscovery of content licensing also drove some of the gains for library shows, with Suits as the prime avatar. When the former USA Network drama was exclusive to Peacock for roughly the first half of 2023, it generated about 4.6 billion minutes of viewing — a decent amount that probably would put Suits among the top 40 or so titles on all streaming services for that time span. But it absolutely exploded when it became part of Netflix’s library as well, drawing more than 52 billion minutes of viewing from mid-June through the end of the year.

Netflix also acted as a multiplier, albeit to a lesser degree, for shows like Young Sheldon and HBO’s Six Feet Under and Band of Brothers — all of which were part of a Warner Bros. Discovery licensing deal that has them stream on both Max and Netflix. Young Sheldon doubled the viewing time of its parent show, the Max-only Big Bang Theory, in the final weeks of the year.

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has all but rolled out the red carpet for other media companies to continue bringing him their libraries, with Suits as the biggest, latest selling point for Netflix’s ability to bring extra attention to a show. “In one way or another, we’re in business with nearly every supplier, including our direct competitors,” he said in October. “And I think that we bring a ton of value to them.”

This story appeared in the Feb. 7 issue ofThe Hollywood Reportermagazine.Click here to subscribe.

For more charts, visit THR’s new, data-driven guide to what people are watching now at www.thr.com/charts.

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