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The biggest US TV shows of 2021: ‘NCIS,’ ‘Yellowstone,’ ‘Squid Game’ and more

NCIS
(Image credit: Sonja Flemming/CBS)

We’ve all watched a lot of TV over the last year (thanks pandemic), but what U.S. TV Shows drew the most eyeballs in 2021? Was it one of your favorites? Variety has culled together the top 100 most-watched TV programs of 2021 from Nielsen’s TV ratings, and we’re going to break it down for you to let you know what were the most popular TV shows of 2021.

Just to clarify, we are just sticking with your traditional TV shows here, because if we were being technical the most-watched TV programs of the year by far would be sports, specifically the NFL; as has been the case for a while. Super Bowl LV in February between Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, which aired on CBS, was by far the most-watched program on the year, drawing in 92.877 million viewers; the next closest (the NFL’s AFC Championship game) was less than half of that at 42.501 million. The NFL took the first seven most-watched spots and 13 of the top 15. Other sports highlights included the College Football playoffs, the Summer Olympics and the NCAA men’s basketball championship game.

But enough about sports, below are the most-viewed shows of the year according to Nielsen (it was a good year for CBS):

The Equalizer (CBS)

Queen Latifah as Robyn McCall in the The Equalizer tv series.

(Image credit: CBS)

With its series premiere airing immediately after the Super Bowl in February, the Queen Latifah-led TV series The Equalizer had the largest viewership for a non-sporting event of 2021, with 23.757 million viewers, good enough for eighth overall. The series wasn’t just a one-hit wonder, though, as three other episodes made the top 100 most-watched shows of the year, though audiences for those dropped into the 11 million-plus viewers. 

Oprah With Megan & Harry (CBS)

Prince Harry and wife Meghan Markle sit for an interview with Oprah Winfrey.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

TV viewers in the U.S. and the U.K. were tuned in for when Oprah Winfrey sat down with Megan Markle and Prince Harry in an exclusive interview to discuss their leaving of the British royal family. The viewing audience in the U.S. was 21.764 million viewers and also made it in the top 10 of programs for the year. 

60 Minutes (CBS)

60 Minutes

(Image credit: CBS)

The long-standing news program has been heralded for its investigation and presentations of many of the important stories facing the U.S., both widely known and lesser known, and it still is able to draw viewers in as well. Five episodes of 60 Minutes made the top 100, with their most viewed airing being an interview with Nancy Pelosi following Jan. 6, with 15.73 million viewers watching.  

NCIS (CBS)

NCIS

(Image credit: CBS)

The Equalizer premiere may have been the biggest TV show of the year, but NCIS was the most consistently popular. Season 18 and parts of season 19 aired during 2021, with 17 of those episodes cracking the top 100 most-watched programs of the year. The largest viewing audience for NCIS was for season 18 episode 9, “Winter Chill,” which had 13.138 million viewers. Along with two other episodes from season 18 (“The First Day” and “Gut Punch”), NCIS had three episodes land in the top 50. 

Adele One Night Only (CBS)

Adele One Night Only

(Image credit: Cliff Lipson/CBS)

CBS hit it big again with another special featuring a well-known British figure, as its TV concert and interview Adele One Night Only had 12.036 million people tune in. The special concert featured Adele singing a few songs from her latest album, 30, right around the time of its release, as well as sitting down with Oprah to talk about the latest in her life. 

FBI (CBS)

John Boyd as Special Agent Stuart Scola and Katherine Renee Turner as Special Agent Tiffany Wallace.

(Image credit: ViacomCBS)

The final jewel in CBS’ 2021 crown of most-watched programs was the crime procedural FBI. The third season of FBI, all of which aired in the first half of 2021, saw seven of its episodes viewed by more than 11 million viewers, with the largest tuning in for the episode “Crazy Love” (11.569 million viewers to be exact). 

Law & Order: SVU and Law & Order: Organized Crime (NBC) 

TV Tonight Detective Elliot Stabler works on a complicated case.

(Image credit: Sky)

Law & Order has been one of NBC’s flagship franchises since the 1990s, with Law & Order: SVU carrying the torch in recent years. A special event and the premiere of a new Law & Order franchise helped it crack the top 100 list for 2021. A crossover event between SVU and the new Law & Order: Organized Crime saw the return of Christopher Meloni’s Det. Elliot Stabler to SVU, which drew 11.533 million viewers. That then immediately led into the series premiere of Organized Crime, with Meloni leading the new series, for which 11.408 people watched. 

Yellowstone (Paramount Network)

Kevin Costner as John Dutton in "Yellowstone."

(Image credit: Paramount Network)

Yellowstone is the only cable network show that managed to make it into the top 100 most-watched TV shows of 2021, and it did it twice. The season 4 episodes “Under a Red Blanket” and “Phantom Pain” drew 11.379 million and 11.238 million viewers, respectively. The western drama has a massive audience, which is also being proven with its prequel series 1883, which has been breaking records for the Paramount Plus streaming service

Squid Game

Squid Game

(Image credit: Netflix)

Squid Game is not actually included in Nielsen’s top 100 most-watched list as it deals strictly with traditional broadcast programs. However, a list of the most popular shows of 2021 cannot be complete without a mention of the Netflix original series from Korea that took the world by storm. Premiering in September, Squid Game set a Netflix record with 1.65 billion hours of viewing in its first 28 days. A second season of Squid Game is reportedly in the works, and the creator is already even talking about a third season.  

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a D.C.-based entertainment writer and content producer for What to Watch. He previously has written for TV Technology and Awards Circuit.