If you were to try to judge TV shows' popularity based on the amount of coverage and recaps they receive from entertainment sites and blogs, you'd probably conclude that the only shows anybody ever watches are Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Community, and Parks and Recreation. Maybe The Americans and The Mindy Project too.
We all know that's wrong, but it's worth emphasizing how wrong it is. Last week's Game of Thrones brought in 7 million viewers (including both live viewers and same-day DVR viewers), a series record. By contrast, last week's NCIS and NCIS: Los Angeles got 10 million each. And they were reruns. Mad Men got beaten even more dramatically; last week's episode drew 2 million viewers, and was bested by no fewer than eight separate Law & Order SVU reruns that very Sunday (it beat SVU showings at midnight and 1am though, so you know, small victories).
The below chart, made as part of Adam Raymond's great New York feature on the astounding popularity of The Big Bang Theory, really drives the point home. If you add up viewers for new episodes of Community, Parks and Recreation, and The Mindy Project — which are, along with New Girl and Trophy Wife, probably the most critically beloved network sitcoms currently airing — the sum total is less than those for a Big Bang Theory rerun:
The difference is even greater when you consider that there's probably considerable overlap between Community, Parks, and Mindy viewers, and the actual number of people who watch a new episode of one or more of the shows in a given week is lower than the figure below. That is just how out of whack actual viewership is from critical taste.
This is all worth keeping in mind when reading pieces trying to sort out why, say, Mad Men is so damned popular. It's really not! None of the shows critics spend their days talking about, with the possible exceptions of Scandal and The Good Wife, are popular when you look at actual viewership. Ratings aren't everything, of course, and Nielsen still doesn't take into account a lot of online viewing mechanisms like Hulu or Netflix, but it's difficult to believe Nielsen is so far off that critical favorites are actually holding their own next to Big Bang Theory or NCIS.
Want to get to know America's actual favorite shows a bit better? Raymond's feature is a great place to start re: Big Bang, and Alyssa Rosenberg's look at NCIS's politics is worth a read.