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What were the number-one movies and TV shows of 2021? We may never find out.

1 December, 2021

What is the number-one movie of 2021? We may never know. It could be Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”; at $224 million, its domestic gross is the year’s biggest to date. You could also make an argument for “Free Guy” at $121 million, which spent its theatrical afterlife in sustained on-demand dominance. Then there’s the big-budget action-comedy “Red Notice” — Netflix’s “biggest opening ever,” tweeted star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Per Netflix, the film streamed for a total of 277.9 million hours in its first week.

Not long ago — say 2019, circa “Avengers: Endgame” — it was easy to determine the number-one movie: It was the one that grossed the most in its North American theatrical release. Back then, movies competed only with other films in theaters. TV success was similarly easy to measure: the most successful TV show was the one with the biggest rating on a given night.

Ah, the good ol’ days. The pandemic installed the attention economy, in which all media competes in an increasingly fractured landscape. Now imagine viewing that fragmentation through frosted glass. Those who relied on publicly reported ratings or grosses — that is to say, everyone — must now contend with viewership reporting that’s opaque by design and likely to stay that way.

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