Tuned In

The Biggest Shows of 2012, on TV and on Google

Comparing the year's top-charting shows, in the Nielsen ratings and online, shows how starkly how much the definition of "hit" has changed.

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Alana Thompson, star of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

TV critics are not the only ones making lists at the end of the year. Yesterday, Nielsen released its first lists of most-watched TV shows for 2012. And today at 12:30 p.m. ET, I’ll be doing a Google Hangout with some of my colleagues on the search engine’s lists of Trending and Most Searched items of the year, in TV among other areas.

Taken together, the two give you a sense of what it means to be “popular” on TV now, and how much that’s changed in just a few years.

The Nielsen numbers first. (You can see their lists here.) It’s not surprising that the top 10 single telecast was the Super Bowl–it always is. Nor is it really surprising that almost every other top single telecast was a sports event (the Grammys came in at #10, with a publicity boost from the death of Whitney Houston).

But it’s still noteworthy that not a single one of those shows comes from regularly scheduled primetime network TV. And when you look at the top-10 regularly scheduled shows, almost none of them come from what we one thought of as big-network TV: dramas and sitcoms. Football again–Sunday night on NBC–is #1. As for the non-football slots, remember all the talk of the death of reality TV? Five are reality shows. Just two are dramas (NCIS and Vegas). None are sitcoms.

The big overall trend for series TV: nobody watches as much of anything. Season five of American Idol, in 2006, averaged over 30 million viewers. In 2012, the top-rated show, Sunday football, got just over 21 million. American Idol had 18 million average viewers—12 million less than six years ago—good enough for second place.

The Google stats, which the search company shared with TIME, are more a measure of intensity of interest than of ratings. But it’s revealing to see where they do and don’t match the Nielsen figures:

United States Trending TV Shows 2012
1. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
2. The Voice
3. American Idol
4. Big Brother 14
5. X Factor
6. 666 Park Avenue
7. Alcatraz
8. Dance Moms
9. The New Normal
10. Switched At Birth

United States Most Searched TV Shows 2012
1. American Idol
2. The Voice
3. Breaking Bad
4. Game of Thrones
5. Glee
6. Big Bang Theory
7. Pretty Little Liars
8. The Office
9. Chuck
10. How I Met Your Mother

On the one hand, some of the “trending” shows–those that showed sharp bursts in interest–are the same kind of live or reality shows that still pull ratings: The Voice, Idol, X Factor, &c, which along with live sports and awards shows may benefit from the second-screen effect.

On the other hand, a lot of the shows that really light up Google are successful but niche shows that generate a lot of intense buzz in a smaller group. Rubbernecking reality shows like Honey Boo Boo; hit niche cable shows like Pretty Little Liars and Game of Thrones; buzzy social-media stalwarts like Glee.

This is another example of how the technology of TV can really change the TV of TV. Thanks to the spread of cable platforms and different ways of monetizing shows, TV series can now thrive with relatively small (by historical standards) but intensely devoted viewerships. Online-buzz can help build this, but it’s facilitated by other technology like DVRs: that Nielsen post also included a list of the most time-shifted shows, which is dominated by cable hits like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. But while buzz can mean success for cable shows, it ain’t necessarily so for major-network dramas, which need bigger audiences to survive: 666 Park Avenue and Alcatraz, despite avid horror and sci-fi fan bases, are no longer.

As for Chuck, which ended in January? I guess it’s hard to say goodbye. And what better way to send off a thriller about a computer nerd than charting on Google?