Netflix has pumped billions of dollars into original programming — but overall, its library of older licensed TV shows far outperforms homegrown hits like “Squid Game” or “Bridgerton.”
In 2021, “Criminal Minds,” the crime-drama procedural that aired on CBS from 2005-20, scored as the most-viewed TV show on U.S. streaming platforms tracked by Nielsen. The 12 seasons available on Netflix registered an estimated 33.9 billion minutes watched last year by American viewers, per Nielsen. The show’s cast over the years included Mandy Patinkin, Thomas Gibson, Paget Brewster, Joe Mantegna, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Jennifer Love Hewitt and Aisha Tyler.
In second place overall in TV shows was “CoComelon,” the kid’s show from Moonbug Entertainment (now part of Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer’s Candle Media). Across 15 episodes on Netflix, “CoComelon” served up an astounding 33.3 billion minutes viewed.
In fact, Netflix had all or part of 14 of the 15 most-viewed acquired TV shows on Nielsen’s chart. Most of those library titles registered higher watch-time than streaming platforms’ originals.
The No. 1 “original” TV show among U.S. streaming users was “Lucifer” on Netflix, which benefitted from having 93 episodes available to tally 18.3 billion minutes viewed. (The first three seasons of the supernatural drama previously aired on Fox before Netflix revived it for seasons 4-6.)
Coming in second for streaming TV orignals was Netflix’s smash global hit “Squid Game,” which produced an impressive 16.4 million viewing minutes among U.S. audiences over its nine-episode run — and therefore had a much higher average per-episode watch time than “Lucifer.”
On the movie front, Disney Plus flexed its mouse muscles with 11 of the top 15 films on Nielsen’s 2021 list, led by “Luca” (10.6 billion minutes), “Moana” (8.9 billion), “Raya and the Last Dragon” (8.3 billion) and “Frozen II” (5.7 billion). Netflix’s “Red Notice,” starring Dwayne Johnson, Gal Gadot and Ryan Reynolds, came in at the No. 5 spot (with 5.5 billion minutes).
In total, U.S. consumers last year streamed nearly 15 million years’ worth of content, per Nielsen. Note, however, that Nielsen’s subscription VOD measurement service really is not a complete picture of streaming usage.
For starters, Nielsen currently doesn’t report viewing on platforms including WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, ViacomCBS’s Paramount Plus or NBCUniversal’s Peacock. In addition, the firm uses audio-based content recognition methodology to track a subset of TV households — which excludes mobile devices and PCs. Based on that data, Nielsen extrapolates estimated total U.S. streaming viewing (but, again, only for the streaming platforms it tracks: Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus, Amazon’s Prime Video and Apple TV Plus).
With those caveats, here are Nielsen estimates for the U.S.’s most-viewed streaming TV shows and movies of 2021. Viewing is reported in millions of minutes for each title for the period from Dec. 28, 2020-Dec. 26, 2021: