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Tops of 2020: Nielsen Streaming Unwrapped

3 minute read | January 2021

2020 has been branded with an assortment of labels and titles, but from a media perspective, it was a truly transitional year for streaming video.  With dramatic impacts to traditional staples like live sports, and an anxiety-inducing hyper news cycle alternating between COVID updates and political divisiveness, streaming video provided a much needed escape. While the massive spikes in media usage that sparked streaming enablement into near ubiquity weren’t unexpected given countrywide lockdowns, the aftermath reflects a permanently altered media landscape, with video streaming accounting for a larger share of overall media consumption than in previous years.

Unsurprisingly, streaming platforms have become video wellsprings for content-hungry consumers, with well-advertised originals like Ozark, The Boys and The Mandalorian grabbing much of the spotlight. And while consumers binged nearly 30.5 billion minutes of Ozark during 2020, they did so across a total of 28 episodes. Similarly, consumers watched more than 57 billion minutes of The Office, which ended its run on Netflix in December, but that viewing covered 192 episodes.

When looking at the types of content that was successful in 2020, it was original content that sparked cultural phenomenons and shepherded in new subscribers to both established and nascent platforms. However, the most-viewed pieces of content on streaming platforms overall weren’t simply the original ones: They were the older shows that first found success on more traditional channels. While original content can generate buzz and draw in audiences, library content is what viewers find comfort in, watch casually and often return to. Simply put, they’re known quantities. They’re the shows that viewers will turn to, as they already have established connections with audiences and provide easy viewing, especially when the hunt for new content to binge may be daunting.

Outside of episodic programming, the trends are much different, as eight of the top 10 movies (in terms of minutes watched) available on subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) platforms in 2020 were kids’ titles. Unlike adults, children will watch and re-watch their favorite content time and time again (perhaps despite the sake of their parents’ possible sanity). This helped land titles like Frozen II, Moana, Secret Life of Pets 2 and Onward into this year’s top 10 list, with each attracting viewership of between 8.3 billion and nearly 15 billion minutes each. In addition to providing a stop-gap to the traditional theater experience during a year where many spent their time close to home, kids movies on streaming platforms likely helped many households cope with having children at home when they would traditionally be away at school. 

Kids’ habits aside, streaming platforms offered a lifeline for movies that could no longer be released through a traditional means and in turn made films more easily accessible to a larger audience. After initially disrupting the television space, streaming services are enabling new options for the film industry as well.

Brian Fuhrer, Nielsen’s SVP of Product Strategy, takes a look back at the top SVOD programs of 2020.


For additional top ranked SVOD programs, as well as TV, advertisements and video games, visit Nielsen’s Top 10, where we share what Americans are watching and playing each week. For help uncovering what on-demand programs audiences are searching for, learn more about our SVOD Content Ratings.

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