The 2020 TV Hot List: The Year’s Biggest and Buzziest Shows, Networks and People

Honorees include Watchmen, The Mandalorian and Schitt’s Creek

Mark your calendar for Mediaweek, October 29-30 in New York City. We’ll unpack the biggest shifts shaping the future of media—from tv to retail media to tech—and how marketers can prep to stay ahead. Register with early-bird rates before sale ends!

This was already going to be a watershed year for the TV industry given the amount of new streaming services that entered the space in the past 12 months. But then Covid-19 dealt Hollywood a completely unexpected blow. As people were stuck at home, television proved an essential lifeline during the pandemic, especially the shows—like many of this year’s TV Hot List winners—which either provided a much-needed escape (like Disney+’s The Mandalorian, from TV Creator of the Year Jon Favreau) or spotlighted many of the same hot-button issues that were gripping the country (like Watchmen, our Show of the Year, and Lovecraft Country from Game Changer of the Year Misha Green). Meanwhile, linear TV is still hanging tough despite the increased competition, thanks to people like TLC president Howard Lee, Adweek’s TV Executive of the Year. From Watchmen to Schitt’s Creek to Stephen Colbert, this year’s TV Hot List honors 2020’s biggest and buzziest shows, networks and people.


TV Executive of the Year

Howard Lee

Courtesy of TLC

When life for families around the country ground to a halt due to Covid-19, which forced them into quarantine, TLC president and general manager Howard Lee knew there would be plenty of stories to tell. So he began to brainstorm. … Click here for Lee’s full TV Executive of the Year profile.


TV Creator of the Year

Jon Favreau

Courtesy of Disney

Ahead of Disney+’s debut last November, Disney executives needed a showstopping original series to convince even more consumers—not just kids and families who were already likely to subscribe—that their new streamer was a must-have service. With Jon Favreau’s The Mandalorian, they got exactly what they wished for. … Click here for Favreau’s full TV Creator of the Year profile.


Game Changer of the Year

Misha Green

Courtesy of WarnerMedia

Misha Green finds new ways to terrify viewers with each episode of Lovecraft Country—from a haunted house to demonic twins—but the creator herself doesn’t frighten easily. “I very rarely get scared,” says Green. Well, except for one thing: “I guess stasis scares me: the idea of not growing, not challenging yourself, not being surprised.” ... Click here for Green’s full Game Changer of the Year profile.


Show of the Year

Watchmen (HBO)

Courtesy of HBO

Damon Lindelof’s take on the iconic DC comic was a stunning standout when it came out in late 2019, but the events of this year—from the pandemic to this summer’s racial justice protests—revealed the series to also be shockingly prescient. It tackled systemic racism, police brutality, white supremacy—and the main characters even wear masks. Watchmen averaged more than 8 million viewers, making it premium cable’s second most-watched new series of 2019. After leading all shows this year with a whopping 26 Emmy nominations, Watchmen also racked up the most wins: 11, including for outstanding limited series. —Jason Lynch


Hottest Drama

The Mandalorian (Disney+)

Courtesy of Disney

Disney’s secret weapon in the streaming wars came in the form of an unlikely pair: a lone warrior and a lost child (known to fans as “Baby Yoda”). The Mandalorian, by far the most-anticipated original as Disney+ launched last November, exceeded Disney’s own high expectations and drew 10 million signups to the service by its second day. The series also received 15 Emmy nominations, including for outstanding drama series, and won seven. Now, Season 2 will debut on the service Oct. 30, just as many families consider whether to re-up their annual subscription. To quote the lead character, “This is the way”—for Disney+ to count on continued growth in its second year. —Kelsey Sutton


Hottest Comedy

Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV)

Courtesy of Pop TV

After six hilarious seasons, Schitt’s Creek went out on top. The show set an Emmy record for most wins in a single season for a comedy: nine in all, including outstanding comedy, actor (Eugene Levy), actress (Catherine O’Hara), supporting actor (Daniel Levy) and supporting actress (Annie Murphy). Its finale was the most-watched episode in the show’s history, and the series has been a mainstay on Netflix’s daily top 10 list since the final season hit the streamer earlier this month. —J.L.


Hottest Miniseries

Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)

Courtesy of Hulu

Much like Watchmen, this limited series—about the ’70s movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and the conservative backlash led by Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett)—ended up being much more of the moment than anyone could have anticipated and received a hefty 10 Emmy nominations. More importantly, the series also helped FX successfully launch its branded hub on Hulu earlier this year (FX on Hulu), proving that the network could expand its brand beyond linear TV. —J.L.


Hottest Network for Drama

HBO

Courtesy of HBO

Remember last year when some people wondered how HBO would survive without Game of Thrones? The answer, it turned out, was to simply assemble TV’s deepest bench of dramas to take its place. Following last year’s seasons of Watchmen, Succession (which won four Emmys, including outstanding drama) and Euphoria (star Zendaya won the lead drama actress Emmy), HBO’s 2020 lineup included The Outsider (this year’s most-watched premium cable series, with nearly 11 million viewers), Perry Mason, The Plot Against America, I Know This Much Is True and Lovecraft Country. —J.L.


Hottest Network for Comedy

Hulu

Courtesy of Hulu

Hulu, once known for having broadcast’s comedies available the day after they aired on linear TV, is now making some of TV’s funniest shows itself. Whether it’s Ramy, Pen15, The Great or Shrill, the service’s lineup of original comedies is driving viewership: Original comedy hours watched on the service grew 55% year over year. Freshman animated series Solar Opposites was Hulu’s most-watched original comedy launch to date, while comedy movie Palm Springs had the highest opening weekend viewership ever for a film on the service. And subscribers who watch one original comedy don’t stop there. Fans of one show will go on to watch at least two more original comedy series on the service on average, according to Hulu. —K.S.


Hottest Animated Series

Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)

Courtesy of Adult Swim

Its fourth season is TV’s No. 1 comedy among adults and men 18-34 and 18-49, and also won the Emmy for animated program. Rick and Morty also expanded its marketing muscle significantly this year, with the cast starring in a high-profile Pringles Super Bowl ad—followed a few months later by a Wendy’s animated spot. Meanwhile, the show is now streaming on HBO Max in addition to longtime home Hulu, and is one of the most popular shows on both platforms. —J.L.


Hottest New Series

Lovecraft Country (HBO)

Courtesy of HBO

No series this year has resonated like Misha Green’s wildly inventive adaptation of Matt Ruff’s novel, which expertly blends horror, supernatural and other genre elements to create a captivating story about America’s racist past and present. The first episode has been watched by more than 8.5 million viewers, and Lovecraft Country (which counts Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams among its executive producers) has been the No. 1 series on HBO Max since the show premiered in August. —J.L.


Hottest Streaming Service

Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

With theaters closed and out-of-home entertainment at a minimum, Netflix’s already exceptional year somehow managed to get even better. The streaming giant, which ended its most recent quarter with 195 million global subscribers, has pushed out hit after hit this year, dominating Emmy nominations with a record 160 nods and finding an international programming groove with series like The Witcher and Money Heist that have broken popularity records on the service. While other outlets have faced filming challenges during Covid-19, Netflix’s tried-and-true approach of stockpiling content means its programming pipeline is still operating at full tilt as show demand continues to climb. —K.S.


Hottest Binge Series

Tiger King (Netflix)

Courtesy of Netflix

When lockdowns first began, American viewers showed their stripes by staying inside and watching Netflix’s true-crime documentary series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. The series, which landed on the streamer in late March, was viewed by 34.2 million Americans in its first 10 days on the service, according to Nielsen’s SVOD Content Ratings. Netflix said it reached 64 million households by its first four weeks. The quarantine breakout hit prompted TikTok songs, challenges and memes galore, and it even offered newfound fame for the show’s eccentric characters on late night, a TMZ special and even ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. —K.S.


Hottest News Network

Fox News Channel

Courtesy of Fox

While Fox News has again experienced its share of controversy this year, the numbers don’t lie: It was the most-watched network in all of cable television for the fourth consecutive year in 2019 with 2.5 million viewers in prime time, a trend that is continuing in 2020. More Americans have tuned into Fox News for coverage of this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates than any other television network—even more than broadcast titans ABC, NBC and CBS. Meanwhile, Tucker Carlson Tonight averaged the largest total audience in cable news history in the second quarter—4.3 million viewers—sometimes drawing larger audiences than its prime-time broadcast counterparts. —A.J. Katz


Hottest Show on Social

The Daily Show With Trevor Noah (Comedy Central)

Courtesy of Comedy Central

Even before the pandemic, The Daily Show had distinguished its social presence beyond just repackaging linear clips as many of its late-night peers do, with a steady output of digital-only content like host Trevor Noah’s Between the Scenes. But it has thrived during the pandemic: Noah was the first late-night host to remotely record video after production was shut down in March. His response to George Floyd’s death in police custody drove more than 48 million cross-channel viewers, while the show’s three Pandumbic trailers have all gone viral (Heroes of the Pandumbic has 32 million views across all channels). —J.L.


Hottest Reality/Competition Series

The Masked Singer (Fox)

Courtesy of Fox

Proving that it wasn’t just a one-season fluke, The Masked Singer finished the 2019-20 TV season as the No. 1 broadcast entertainment program in the 18-49 demo and averaged 15.1 million total viewers across all platforms. Its Season 3 post-Super Bowl premiere was watched by 27.4 million viewers in live-plus-7 and received a stellar 9.4 rating in the 18-49 demo. And The Masked Singer’s Season 4 premiere in September picked up right where things left off: It was the highest-rated entertainment telecast in the 18-49 demo on any network since the show’s Season 3 finale. —J.L.


Hottest Late-Night Host

Stephen Colbert (CBS)

Courtesy of CBS

Four years ago, the presidential election helped spark his late-night comeback. This year’s race has cemented The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’s lead in both total viewers and the 18-49 demo. In recent weeks, the Late Show has been watched by almost as many total viewers as rivals The Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live combined. Colbert was also the first host to perform a full monologue at home during the pandemic—in a suit and tie, sitting in his bathtub, which was filled with bubbles. —J.L.


Hottest Network for Unscripted

Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

It was only two years ago that Netflix’s reality programming really broke through with the service’s reboot of Queer Eye. Two years later, the streamer has finally hit its groove, with a reality slate of originals that satisfies most every viewer’s appetite. From dating shows like Love Is Blind and Too Hot to Handle, reality real estate dramas like Selling Sunset and Million Dollar Beach House and competition shows like The Circle and Floor Is Lava, the service has released buzzy, bizarre and binge-worthy reality series that drive cultural conversation and frequently nab the No. 1 spot on Netflix’s top 10 most popular program lists. —K.S.


Hottest Branded Content

Disney CreativeWorks

Courtesy of Disney CreativeWorks

Now serving as the umbrella company for eight Disney content brands and networks—including ABC, ESPN, Freeform, FX, Hulu and National Geographic—Disney CreativeWorks created thousands of pieces of content for its partners over the past year. But the company’s quality is even more impressive than its quantity, particularly the standout State Farm spots during ESPN’s The Last Dance miniseries (which featured deepfakes of ’90s SportsCenter content with talent like Kenny Mayne and Keith Olbermann) and July’s reveal of the Ford Bronco’s return, with separate three-minute ads that aired the same night on ABC, ESPN and National Geographic. —J.L.


Hottest TV Franchise

90 Day Fiancé (TLC)

Courtesy of TLC

For TLC, 90 Day Fiancé and its nine spinoffs are the reality gift that keeps on giving. The franchise continues to be a ratings juggernaut, propelling TLC to the No. 1 cable network on Sunday nights among adults 18-49. 90 Day Fiancé: Before the 90 Days is currently the No. 1 program on cable among women 25-54, 18-49 and 18-34, while Darcey & Stacey is the year’s top freshman series. The shows are so popular that TLC expanded the franchise from one night a week to two, adding Mondays. 90 Day Fiancé has also proven to be adaptable during Covid-19. Producers enlisted past cast members to film themselves at home for yet another hit spinoff, 90 Day Fiancé: Self-Quarantined. —K.S.


Hottest Feud

Roku/Amazon Fire vs. Peacock/HBO Max

The new carriage disputes have arrived, and they stand to shape the future of streaming TV. Connected television devices like Roku and Amazon Fire are pushing for more lucrative arrangements with the streaming services they distribute on their platforms, and with 43 million active accounts and 40 million users, respectively, they carry some clout to negotiate for better terms surrounding advertising inventory and data. Take the case of NBCUniversal streamer Peacock, which debuted without availability on either platform. Peacock and Roku have since come to an agreement, but the face-off is still hamstringing HBO Max, which has seen tepid early growth as it remains unavailable on both platforms. —K.S.


Hottest Pandemic Pivot

Disney+

Courtesy of Disney

Just days after Covid-19 sheltering in place began, the streaming service began accelerating its premiere timetable to help housebound families keep their kids occupied, moving Frozen 2, Onward and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to the service much earlier than planned. Then parent company Disney sent several films that had been earmarked for theatrical release straight to Disney+ instead, most notably Hamilton—which arrived on the streaming service a full year before its planned theatrical release and helped drive the platform to 60.5 million subscribers as of August, four years ahead of the company’s initial projections. The next big film skipping theaters for Disney+: Pixar’s Soul, which will debut on Dec. 25. —J.L.

Click here to check out all of this year’s Hot List honorees.

Adweek magazine cover
Click for more from this issue

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.