The 2019 TV Hot List: The Year’s Biggest and Buzziest Shows, Networks and People

Plus, Executive of the Year Cindy Holland and Creator of the Year Chuck Lorre

A collage of Adweek Hot List 2019 winners including Amazon
Adweek presents the Hottest Comedy, Hottest Network for Comedy, Hottest TV Franchise and more winners. Sources: Amazon, Hulu, Live PD

The TV industry is in the midst of a massive upheaval—one that will come to a head over the next year as a number of major new streaming services prepare to enter the fray—which makes it tougher than ever for shows and networks to connect with viewers. Yet this year’s TV Hot List winners have managed to do just that. This list spotlights all of the ways the industry has shifted, and how Netflix (and Adweek’s TV Executive of the Year, Cindy Holland, as well as Game Changer of the Year Ava DuVernay, who made the riveting When They See Us for the service) is increasingly at the front of it. At the same time, broadcast still continues to thrive, thanks to people like Adweek’s TV Creator of the Year, Chuck Lorre, who has three shows on CBS, and whose The Big Bang Theory wrapped its 12-season run in May as TV’s most-watched comedy. From Stranger Things to Game of Thrones to Stephen Colbert, this year’s TV Hot List honors the year’s biggest and buzziest shows, networks and people.

TV Executive of the Year 
Cindy Holland

Cindy Holland
Cindy Holland, Adweek's TV Executive of the Year, joined Netflix 17 years ago.
Courtesy of Netflix

For Netflix’s Cindy Holland, overseeing original programming at the biggest streaming service in the world wasn’t always part of the plan. Holland, who joined Netflix 17 years ago and is now vp of original content, has seen Netflix through several different phases, arriving when the company was a DVD-by-mail business and helping it evolve into a streaming-centric giant in its ongoing quest to build a massive customer base. “The only thing that wasn’t in our core initial strategy was that we would be in the business of producing original content ourselves,” says Holland.

That all changed, of course, when the company began investing in original shows like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards, both of which premiered in 2013. Six years later, the company is an entertainment empire on par with established Hollywood brands. Read More …

TV Creator of the Year
Chuck Lorre

Chuck Lorre
Chuck Lorre, our TV Creator of the Year, is currently overseeing four TV shows.
Patrick Eccelsine/2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Don’t let his impressive resume fool you. Yes, Chuck Lorre has created or co-created hit sitcoms like Grace Under Fire, Dharma and Greg, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory during the past two decades, but just because the writer-producer gets a show on the air doesn’t mean he has cracked the code of what makes that series tick. Read More …

Show of the Year
Game of Thrones (HBO)

Courtesy of HBO

Everyone wanted to find out who would win the battle for the Iron Throne: 45.9 million viewers tuned in to the HBO drama’s eighth and final season this past May, making Game of Thrones the most-watched series by far in HBO history. All year long, the show’s reach was inescapable, even for those who didn’t watch: More than 100 brands collaborated with Game of Thrones, including AT&T, Mountain Dew, Urban Decay and, most memorably, Bud Light, in a Super Bowl spot that featured one of the show’s dragons incinerating the Bud Knight. Last month’s Emmys served as the final curtain call for the show, which won 12 awards, including outstanding drama series. —J.L.

Hottest Drama
This Is Us (NBC)

Courtesy of NBC

While most breakout dramas tend to fade after a season or two (looking at you, Empire and The Good Doctor), This Is Us continues to retain its relevancy and interest among viewers as it heads into Season 4. It was the No. 1 drama in the 18-49 demo last season, so it was no surprise when NBC gave the series a massive three-season renewal just in time for NBCUniversal’s upfront event in May. And given the time-jumping show’s continued ability to throw new curveballs at its audience, This Is Us momentum shows no signs of waning. —Sara Jerde

Hottest Comedy
Fleabag (Amazon)

Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Has an audience ever fallen faster in love with a character than with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s irresistible yet self-destructive Fleabag? Waller-Bridge’s titular character and Andrew Scott’s unforgettable portrayal of Hot Priest (which is what fans collectively decided to call him) made the second season of the BBC and Amazon Prime Video series even funnier and more cutting than the first. The show won six Emmys, including outstanding comedy series, with Waller-Bridge also receiving writing and lead actress trophies. Waller-Bridge has insisted Fleabag is finished, but here’s hoping she reconsiders. —K.S.

Hottest Miniseries
Chernobyl (HBO)

Courtesy of HBO

In a year packed with thoughtful, moving entries, Craig Mazin’s gripping miniseries about the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl still managed to stand out. With 12.9 million viewers so far, it’s HBO’s most-watched miniseries or limited series since Band of Brothers in 2001. That large audience included Emmy voters, who gave the show 19 nominations (more than any other miniseries this year) and 10 wins (second only to Game of Thrones among all shows), including outstanding limited series. Chernobyl also spawned a popular, and essential, tie-in podcast, co-hosted by Mazin, which broke down each episode and provided even more compelling insight. —J.L.

Hottest Network for Drama

Most networks would have been content to simply focus their year on Game of Thrones’ finale, but that show was just one of many can’t-miss dramas that appeared on HBO in 2019. Among the other standouts: the return of Big Little Lies (featuring Meryl Streep); a third True Detective season that returned to form after its Season 2 stumble; controversial summer breakout Euphoria; the critically acclaimed Deadwood reunion movie/finale; the third and final season of The Deuce; and a sophomore season of Succession that is already generating buzz for next year’s Emmys. Add in the eagerly awaited Watchmen and His Dark Materials, coming this fall, and it’s clear that HBO boasts the deepest drama bench on TV. —J.L.

Hottest Network for Comedy

The Handmaid’s Tale might get most of the attention, but more than half of Hulu viewers watch comedy programming every week, which explains why the streaming service has ramped up its slate. Earlier this year, the service debuted three comedies that ended up as some of 2019’s most original new shows: Pen15, in which Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play versions of themselves as middle schoolers alongside real-life teens; Shrill, starring Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant as a plus-sized woman navigating career, family and love; and Ramy, in which Egyptian-American comic Ramy Youssef chronicles his semi-fictionalized life as a young Muslim American. All three freshman series received rave reviews and were quickly renewed, helping Hulu establish itself as an essential home for emerging comic voices. —K.S.

Hottest Kids Show
SpongeBob SquarePants (Nickelodeon)

Courtesy of Viacom/Nickelodeon

Two decades later, the animated series about the absorbent, yellow and porous being who lives in a pineapple under the sea is going stronger than ever. It’s been the No. 1 animated series among kids 2-11 for 17 years and averages more than 100 million total viewers each quarter. This summer, a 20th anniversary live-action/animated hybrid special was another hit, and there’s a third SpongeBob movie heading toward theaters next year. Meanwhile, the franchise—which has raked in more than $13 billion in merchandising revenue—is about to expand again: In June, Nickelodeon greenlit a prequel spinoff series, Kamp Koral. —J.L.

Hottest Kids Network

It’s been another tough year for kids networks, but Nickelodeon is once again the No. 1 network in 2019 among kids 2-11 and 6-11. For those counting, the network has been on top for 17 consecutive quarters in the 2-11 demo and 12 quarters among kids 6-11. The network is home to nine of the top 10 kids shows with children 2-11 and 6-11, led by Henry Danger. And Nickelodeon’s content will help power two major streaming services in the coming year: Pluto TV (the free AVOD service, which Viacom purchased in March) and, following the close of the Viacom-CBS merger, CBS All Access. —J.L.

Hottest New Series
Russian Doll (Netflix)

Courtesy of Netflix

A Groundhog Day-esque show centered on the repeated death and revival of the same woman at the same party sounds like it might get repetitive fast, but the Netflix series created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler does anything but. The delightfully weird, funny and occasionally devastating series, which stars Lyonne, received near-universal critical acclaim when it debuted in February, and the show garnered 13 Emmy nominations, winning three. The series has been renewed for a second season on Netflix, which Lyonne has said will be “same show, just weirder.” —K.S.

Hottest Streaming Service

Courtesy of Netflix

Twelve years after being founded, Netflix is positioned squarely at the center of the television universe—dwarfing its competition with more than 151 million paid subscribers globally. But it’s not just the service’s sheer size that makes it formidable: Buzzy originals like When They See Us and Russian Doll gave Netflix more Emmy nominations than any TV outlet other than HBO. And it’s continued to lock in many of TV’s top creators to exclusive mega deals, including Game of Thrones’ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Among Netflix’s rivals, many of whom are readying their own streaming services, the long-standing streaming juggernaut is the one to beat. —K.S.

Hottest Upcoming Streaming Service

Disney+ isn’t even available to the public yet, and it’s already a force to be reckoned with. When the service premieres on Nov. 12, it will be jam-packed with anticipated shows from the Star Wars and Marvel universes, new offerings from Pixar and Disney brands and a wealth of library content from the Disney vaults. The ad-free service will be $6.99 a month, making it one of the cheaper OTT offerings on the market, and Disney is also discounting the price further via various bundles and other deals. For consumers, what’s not to love? —K.S.

Hottest Binge Series
Stranger Things (Netflix)

Courtesy of Netflix

The nostalgia-drenched show became a runaway hit when it debuted in 2016, and the program’s rabid fanbase has only grown since then. Within the first four days of Season 3’s July 4 debut, 40.7 million household Netflix accounts watched, and more than 18 million of them completed the entire season, numbers that Netflix said were higher than any other of its original films or series ever. —K.S.

Hottest News Network
Fox News Channel

The most polarizing network on cable television also happens to be the most popular: Fox News Channel is on pace to be the No. 1 basic cable network in average total audience for the fourth consecutive year, and has now been the most-watched cable news network for 71 consecutive quarters. And while some of its opinion shows have weathered advertiser boycotts, it hasn’t affected the bottom line: Fox News—which is one of the key assets of the slimmed-down Fox Corp. (which was spun off ahead of the Disney-Fox merger)—is on track to hit a new high in ad sales during fiscal year 2019-2020. While business may be booming, the network is now being confronted with a new challenge: navigating the recent departure of its longest-tenured news anchor Shepard Smith, a journalist unafraid of speaking truth to power. —A.J. Katz

Hottest Show on Social
America’s Got Talent (NBC)

Courtesy of NBC

America’s Got Talent is one of NBC’s biggest shows, but the network has managed to keep audiences entertained on its social platforms as well. With 30.2 million total interactions to date in linear metrics, it’s the No. 1 most social broadcast series of the year, according to Nielsen. The show’s Twitter account is filled with miniature looks at each of the performances, perfectly snackable for mobile viewing. —S.J.

Hottest Reality/Competition Series
The Masked Singer (Fox)

Courtesy of FOX

If you like your reality singing competitions infused with celebrities anonymously crooning in outlandish costumes, then Fox’s The Masked Singer is for you. And you are far from alone. Last season, the show’s debut averaged 15.8 million viewers per episode, and it was the No. 1 broadcast entertainment show among adults 18-49, adults 18-34, men 18-34 and teens. That momentum has continued this fall: The Masked Singer’s Season 2 premiere made it the new season’s No. 1 entertainment program among adults 18-49. The show should land its biggest audience yet on Feb. 2, when Season 3 debuts after Super Bowl LIV. —A.J.K.

Hottest Sports Network

When Fox sold most of its entertainment assets to Disney in March, it did so with the plan of focusing more on live sports and news. Nowhere is that more apparent than the network’s hefty four-day sports programming block this fall: Thursday Night Football, Friday Night SmackDown (moving to Fox from USA Network), college football on Saturday and NFL Sundays, anchored by television’s most-watched program, America’s Game of the Week. Plus, Fox is home to Major League Baseball’s World Series, and will air the Super Bowl, which should once again be the year’s most-watched sports telecast, on Feb. 2. —A.J.K.

Hottest Late-Night Host
Stephen Colbert

Courtesy of CBS

CBS’ The Late Show With Stephen Colbert had been beating The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in total viewers since February 2017, but it took until this year for Colbert to finally overtake his NBC rival in the 18-49 demo that advertisers covet most. He pulled ahead in the 2018-19 TV season, marking The Late Show’s first win in the demo over The Tonight Show since the 1994-95 season, when David Letterman was the king of late night. With the 2020 presidential election looming, expect that ratings gap to keep widening. —J.L.

Hottest Unscripted Network

Courtesy of HGTV

Aside from news, no network draws in cable audiences more than HGTV. More than 38 million viewers watch it each month, and last quarter, it was the top-rated cable entertainment network in prime time among total viewers, and behind only Nickelodeon in total day. Audiences are drawn to a combination of ongoing series like Flip or Flop, Windy City Rehab and My Lottery Dream Home, and new shows like Property Brothers: Forever Home. Last month’s debut of A Very Brady Renovation was the highest-rated season premiere in HGTV history, drawing more than 10 million total viewers and giving the network its most-watched Monday ever in households and the 25-54 demo. —J.L.

Hottest Branded Content
Viacom Velocity

Courtesy of Viacom

Viacom’s in-house branded content studio has already collected more than 140 honors this year (including Adweek’s Arc Awards) for its innovative, splashy campaigns. This year’s highlights include more than six minutes of branded content for Pepsi and Toyota that aired during the MTV VMAs, enlisting The Daily Show’s Desi Lydic to tout Twizzlers as an alternative to plastic straws and tapping RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Bob the Drag Queen and Trixie Mattel to spoof an in-flight video as part of a partnership with JetBlue. Viacom Velocity, which has expanded as part of Viacom’s Advanced Marketing Solutions offering, is expected to take on an even bigger role following the Viacom-CBS merger. —J.L

Hottest TV Franchise
Live PD (A&E)

Courtesy of A&E

It might not grab the same headlines as the flashier broadcast franchises, but Live PD, which has made A&E the No. 1 cable network on Fridays and Saturdays among adults 25-54, has quietly spawned three spinoffs, each of which became the network’s top-rated new series of that year: Live PD: Police Patrol (2017), Live PD Presents: PD Cam (2018) and this year’s Live Rescue. The franchise has already propelled A&E to nine consecutive quarters of growth in the 25-54 demo, and its biggest spinoff yet is coming this winter: America’s Top Dog, in which Live PD police K9s and other skilled dogs compete in an obstacle course. —J.L

Check out all of this year’s honorees:

This story first appeared in the Oct. 21, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.