Although overall comedy viewing on TV dropped 9% in 2020, the audience grew substantially for a variety of long-gone sitcoms, from 1960s CBS series "The Andy Griffith Show" to "Friends," according to a Nielsen report provided exclusively to USA TODAY. And classic comedies that reflect casting diversity were among the biggest gainers.
Last year, NBC's "Friends" – which ended its 10-year run in 2004 – was the most-watched comedy on broadcast or cable TV, with 96.7 billion minutes viewed, a 30% jump from 2019. "Andy Griffith" grew 29%, to 58.3 billion viewing minutes, while ABC's "Roseanne" saw a 70% viewing surge to 20.1 billion minutes.
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Behind "Friends" is CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" (2007-19) and "Two and a Half Men" (2003-15), according to Nielsen, which did not include streaming in its ranking. But that's one reason why "Friends" (along with "Big Bang") is a cornerstone of new streaming service HBO Max, which still plans to air a cast reunion after nearly a year's delay due to pandemic restrictions.
The growth rate was even larger for some shows with casts that are more representative of the nation's diversity. Year-to-year viewing of ABC's "Family Matters" (1989-1998), which focuses on a Black family, skyrocketed, recording 11.4 billion viewing minutes for a 392% increase from 2019. So, yes, Urkel, you did do that. "George Lopez" (2002-07), built around a popular comedian of Mexican-American heritage, recorded nearly 11 billion viewing minutes, a 113% jump, while "The Bernie Mac Show" (2001-06) was up 71% to 3.3 billion minutes.
Audiences increased for a selection of other older sitcoms, too: "I Love Lucy" (9.3 billion minutes, up 8%); "Full House" (7.2 billion minutes, up 35%); "Good Times" (6.9 billion minutes, up 24%); and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" (6.7 billion minutes, up 13%).
"While the comedy genre is always popular, comedy viewing over the past year highlights a resurgence of nostalgia programming," the Nielsen report says. "When audiences needed a break from reality, they traveled back in time to tried-and-true picks like 'Friends,' 'Family Matters,' 'The Golden Girls' and 'Two and a Half Men.'"
Embracing the comfort of the familiar makes sense during an especially unpredictable and troubling year that included the pandemic; protests seeking racial justice after police killings of Black people; and a divisive presidential election. Programs born when TV content was tamer and aimed at the broadest audience possible may also seem like a reliable option for multi-generational households watching together.
The Nielsen report highlights the continuing popularity of TV viewing, even as the streaming audience expands dramatically, and concludes that growth in streaming platforms does not necessarily mean a decline for traditional TV, at least when it comes to sitcom reruns.
"The Office" increased 4% (to 30.1 billion minutes) in TV viewing on Comedy Central and elsewhere in 2020, about half the viewership it attracted streaming on Netflix (57.1 billion). The NBC series, which aired from 2005-13, moved to NBC's new Peacock streaming service in January.
"The high viewership of popular syndicated programs across platforms highlights a critical finding: making them available in more places actually increases total viewership," Nielsen says.
Data on 42 major media markets shows wide disparity in viewing habits. Residents of the Pittsburgh area watched an average of 126 hours of TV comedy in 2020, compared with just 43 hours for those in Salt Lake City. And not surprisingly, "Andy Griffith" ranked as the favorite comedy in two TV markets in North Carolina, Griffith's home state and the setting for the small-town comedy.
These cities have the most avid TV comedy fans
Greensboro-High Point-Winston-Salem, North Carolina (119)
Charlotte, North Carolina (110)
Providence, R.I.-New Bedford, Massachusetts (107)
Jacksonville, Florida (103)
St. Louis (102)
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nielsen finds COVID-19 TV viewing spikes for classic sitcoms