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Though the audience grew this year, all still is not well in Emmyland

September 21, 2009 |  4:48 pm

That CBS' telecast of the Emmy Awards managed to end three years of ratings declines against a huge football match on NBC is something of a minor miracle.

According to preliminary numbers from Nielsen, the Emmys averaged 13.3 million viewers, an 8% gain from last year's telecast on ABC, which was the lowest-rated on record. The broadcast was also up 11% among viewers ages 18 to 49 and 9% among adults ages 25 to 54. Not bad, considering that NBC's coverage of the Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants match drew 22 million viewers.

CBS' accomplishment aside, all is not well in Emmyland. Next year's awards are on NBC (the show rotates among the networks each year), which means the Peacock will likely push the broadcast back to August so it doesn't interfere with its NFL coverage. That could mean lower ratings. The last time NBC had the show and ran it in August, viewership fell by almost 2.5 million viewers compared with the previous year. A case can be made that NBC and the Emmys might be better off airing the awards on a Monday in September than on a Sunday in August.


Furthermore, the TV deal that the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has with ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — in which each shells out about $7 million a year for broadcast rights to the show — expires after next year's broadcast. There is some debate about whether the show would do better if it had a permanent home instead of bouncing from network to network. ABC is the home of the Oscars and CBS has been successful with the Grammys and Tonys. A case can be made that stability might help buffer against viewer erosion.

Of course, that has been tried before. Fox had the Emmys for six years, from 1987 to 1992, and ABC also had the award show exclusively briefly in the 1990s.

The problem in the past has been that if one network has the awards on a permanent basis, the other networks will go after them guns-a-blazin'. HBO attempted to make a run for the award show in 2002, and the other networks said if they did, then good luck getting stars to show up. At the time, a CBS spokesman said their network would "no longer participate in the Emmys in any way, shape or form."

"Watch how fast all the others make an extraordinary effort to knock it down," says Tom O'Neil, our resident award expert whose blog Gold Derby is on our sister site The Envelope

Isn't that already happening? Rival networks no longer lay down against the Emmy Awards. NBC has football and, while it's true that ESPN used to have football on Sunday night, it was not as big a threat because it was on cable and the NFL is giving NBC better games than it gave ESPN. HBO ran its lineup last night that included "Entourage" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," while AMC ran a new episode of "Mad Men."

"There was an honor among thieves; those days are gone," observed one network executive. 

O'Neil suggests that, instead of finding one home, the academy should open the bidding to everyone. There would probably be a lot of interest from some cable networks for the awards. While they have the money, odds are the ratings would take a big hit if the show ended up rotating around a bunch of cable networks and broadcast networks. O'Neil argues that award shows should not be judged by their ratings performance, but without a large enough audience, then advertising dollars fade. And without ad dollars, there goes the show.

— Joe Flint

Photo: Neil Patrick Harris. Credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Images.