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Jimmy Fallon and a host of new winners keep Emmy viewership from falling

August 30, 2010 | 11:51 am

FALLON

A slew of new winners and an energized performance by host Jimmy Fallon was enough to boost the audience slightly for the 62nd Primetime Emmy Awards on NBC Sunday night.

About 13.5 million people tuned in to watch AMC's "Mad Men" and ABC's "Modern Family" walk off with the top honors in the drama and comedy category, respectively, according to Nielsen. That's a tiny improvement over the 13.47 million that caught the 2009 Emmys on CBS. But among the coveted 18-to-49 demographic, ratings were down, with last night's program averaging a 4.1, compared with 4.2 for last year's program. Each ratings point in that demographic equals about 1.3 million viewers.

That the Emmys managed to stay relatively flat with last year's numbers is impressive given that this year's show ran at the end of August, a time when many families are grabbing their last chance at a summer vacation and television viewing is typically lower than in September when the show usually runs. NBC moved the show because it carries NFL football on Sunday nights in the fall.

However, because the Emmy Awards ran in late August, a case can also be made that the competition was lighter than it would be in September, thus the numbers should have reflected that. Last year, for example, the CBS telecast of the Emmy Awards went head-to-head against NBC's coverage of a New York Giants-Dallas Cowboys football game. Sunday night's viewership was down 16% compared with NBC's 2006 telecast of the show, which also took place in late August.

Even though it's late August, none of NBC's rivals threw up a test pattern. Fox ran a preseason football game featuring the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers, and CBS carried its popular show "Big Brother. Cable also didn't take the night off, with AMC's "Mad Men" and "Entourage" and HBO's "True Blood" airing new episodes.

For the first time in over 30 years, the Emmy Awards aired live on the West Coast, which didn't seem to help or hurt overall viewership.

That so many new shows were nominated and in the running for top prizes may have helped keep Emmy viewers glued to their TV sets. Aside from "Modern Family," Fox's "Glee" took home a couple of Emmys in the comedy category, including a trophy for Jane Lynch in the best supporting actress category. Jim Parsons of the CBS hit "The Big Bang Theory" was also a newcomer to Emmy glory with a win in the best acting in a comedy category. Those three managed to shut down NBC's "30 Rock," which had dominated the comedy category for the last few years.

On the drama front it was the same old story for the most part as "Mad Men" won for the third year in a row, as did Bryan Cranston, the star of AMC's other big series, "Breaking Bad."

With the Emmys over, the next priority for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is reaching a new television deal. The current deal, which was signed eight years ago, ended Sunday night, and talks for a new contract between the broadcast networks and the Academy are dragging.

At issue are the fees for the show. In the last deal, Fox, CBS, NBC and ABC agreed to share the awards and paid a high price for those rights. The annual cost has gone from $3 million a year in 2002 to more than $7 million this year, according to people familiar with the deal. On top of that, the network that has Emmys also covers the production costs, which runs into the millions of dollars.

Part of the reason the academy was able to get such a big increase from the broadcast networks was that pay cable channel HBO made a run for the Emmy Awards the last time the deal was up in 2002. Not wanting to see the television industry's biggest event end up on a commercial-free pay cable channel available in less than one-third of all television homes, broadcasters opened up their wallets to hold on to the show.

These days the broadcast networks are increasingly looking to trim costs. Furthermore, HBO has expressed little interest in going after the Emmy Awards show. After all, it takes home plenty of Emmys already without having to pay for the program itself.

Whether a commercial cable channel such as TNT will step up and make a bid remains to be seen. If the show did move to cable, there is a risk that the broadcast networks would be less eager to support the program.

At the same time though, the awards matter greatly to the creative community, so the networks could risk alienating their own performers if they were to stop supporting the academy and the broadcast. Also, since many of the major cable networks are part of media conglomerates that also own a broadcast network, that may lessen the sting of the show moving.

However, the most likely cable bidder for the Emmys, Time Warner's TNT and TBS channels, do not have a tie to a big-four broadcast network; it only has the CW, which is a joint venture between Warner Bros. and CBS. A spokesman for the academy said there would be no comments on the status of negotiations.

There is a school of thought that like the Oscars, which has a permanent home on ABC, the Emmys might benefit from a fixed address. At a time when all of broadcast television is dealing with increased competition and viewer erosion, live event programming is still a draw. If the show were to be based at one network, there might be more incentive to put some marketing muscle behind it and viewers would also be able to stop having to figure out who has the show in any given year.

A potential dark cloud for the Emmy Awards is a rival awards show in the works from the Paley Center for Media. Formerly the Museum of Television & Radio, the Paley Center's board includes several television industry heavy hitters from the broadcast business. Although no potential date has been set for any Paley Center Awards show and there is no television deal, it would probably take place in May, around the time that the networks present their new schedules to advertisers in New York.

-- Joe Flint

Photo: Emmy host Jimmy Fallon does his Elton John impersonation. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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