No one watched a great Emmys telecast, which really shouldn’t surprise us

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The 2016 Emmys were, quite objectively, a well-produced show.

They came in on time, helped by a couple of absent acting winners. They included a meaningful number of surprises, including wins for young stars Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) and Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), to help offset the predictable series wins for Veep and Game Of Thrones. They had a dynamic host in Jimmy Kimmel, who managed the combination of prepared bits and contextual quips admirably. They had a diverse array of winners, and Academy president Bruce Rosenblum used his speech to call attention to below-the-line workers, bringing out two craft winners from the Creative Arts ceremonies for a deserved round of applause. They even managed to find a way to mount specific In Memoriam tributes to television greats—the Garrys, Shandling and Marshall—without making the evening too somber. While there are winners I’d quibble with, there was nothing in the narrative of the evening that to me demonstrates a failing on the part of the producers.

The 2016 Emmys were also, objectively, the lowest-rated ever.

This dichotomy has to be frustrating for producers, who put on a show that I would identify as a successful celebration of television as a medium, but who were summarily punished for that. And so as CBS prepares to mount its latest version of the Emmys next year, the question becomes whether or not parties involved believe that there is a need to change the central goals of the Emmys to draw larger audiences.

This is, on some level a bit of a fool’s errand if it happens. While award shows remain highly successful relative to the rest of television in live, same-day ratings as “event programming,” their viewership is still shrinking relative to their peaks, as competition from cable (AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead aired a new episode last night), streaming, sports, and just about any other form of linear or non-linear viewing increases. And so while the relative value of award shows from a ratings perspective remains comparatively high as other programming shrinks to new lows, the erosion is still a point of concern, and one that voting bodies and broadcasters have tried to confront in various ways.

The problem for the Emmys, I’d argue, is that there’s not a whole lot they can do. The Grammys, for example, shifted their focus to live performances, effectively becoming a three-and-a-half hour concert with occasional award interludes. However, the Grammys also benefit from the sense that they are a one-time-only event: Adele’s 25 and Beyonce’s Lemonade will only face-off for the Grammy for Best Album once. The same principle applies to the Tony Awards, where you only have one chance to tune in and see Hamilton dominate the field, as well as the Oscars, where The Revenant will be felled by Spotlight just once.

There are elements of this “event” dynamic in the Emmys: the Limited Series category, for example, was the only chance to see The People v. O.J. Simpson rewarded, and a season’s final opportunity at an Emmy can create a degree of finality. But for the most part, the show competing at the Emmys have competed at the Emmys before, and will compete again, and thus it’s harder to argue that this is something that you will never get to experience again. Also, whereas the Oscars can generate interest in even more niche nominees through the clearly constructed “Oscar Season” that can build a narrative for viewers who are introduced to films or stars at the Golden Globes, the Globes or the SAG awards are distant memories by the time the Emmys arrives, meaning that few narratives can create the sense that a particular year’s competition is a singular event.

There’s also the challenge that the idea of seeing TV stars—and especially TV stars, more than movie stars—outside of their shows is no longer the novelty it once might have been. We now have “access” to stars through social media, who are continually encouraged to interact with their fans: millions likely followed the Emmys via their favorite stars’ social media feeds, and may not have seen the necessity of tuning into the broadcast itself when what they’d typically watch for—seeing the fashion, catching a glimpse of stars seeming like real people—is accessible every day, and on Emmys day, without tuning into a broadcast. Social media has also made it unnecessary to watch the awards to find out who’s winning them: while Fox “spoiled” the winners during their simultaneous World Series broadcast in 2001 after the 9/11-delayed Emmys broadcast was pushed into October in an effort to keep viewers glued to the game, now users who chose to watch Sunday Night Football have phones or tablets ready at hand, able to see those results through Twitter (or other social networks).

For the most part, ABC didn’t try to address any of these challenges. They presented a very “fastball down the middle” ceremony, celebrating television stars and particularly tapping into ABC’s own lineup. There was no arguments about the golden age of television, or attempts to address “Peak TV” or anything like that. ABC did as you would expect, focusing on promoting its own stars and new series, while also celebrating its legacy with an NYPD Blue reunion that one imagines the show’s younger audience failed to connect with. I appreciated this “old-fashioned” feeling, and ultimately would consider the ceremony a success at its goal of celebrating the best in television.

But should that be the goal of the Emmys? And will it be seen as the goal for the Emmys when they arrive at CBS, at a ceremony that will 100% be hosted by James Corden? If the current carousel of broadcast rights for the Emmys forces CBS to air a ceremony that will almost certainly feature just a handful of major nominations for their own programming, they will be particularly incentivized to find other ways to make the event valuable to them. There has always been some resentment of low-rated cable’s dominance of a show that broadcasters are forced to pay to produce and air, but that will only heighten as the ratings get lower, for both the broadcast and the shows that are competing for major awards.

I don’t know exactly what that will look like, but I wonder if CBS might look to Corden’s success on YouTube as a way to potentially expand the awards’ appeal. Corden’s ability to bridge the linear and non-linear worlds—I’ve been watching Legend of Korra on plane trips recently—puts him as a figure that might be able to bring more of the streaming world into the broadcast, while also creating the type of segments that could promise something different than an average award show appearance by the celebrities involved. While it may seem odd that it could be CBS that pushes for a larger presence for YouTube stars or short form content, Corden’s (100% likely) involvement and CBS’ likely disillusionment at falling ratings and cable supremacy makes me wonder if it may be a moment to shake up the thesis and approach of the Emmys as an award show.

Such efforts might still be futile, but they also might be worth a try in the midst of an environment where the “same old”—even when objectively successful as a broadcast—struggles in the current television economy.

Cultural Observations

  • Any attempt to suggest that “voters” acted as in a particular way is felled by the supporting winners, which bounced from Louie Anderson to Ben Mendelsohn and Kate McKinnon to Maggie Smith with no consistent narrative. They were the only major wins for each show, and speak to the challenge of pulling narrative out of even a single peer group.
  • It was a bit surprising to see The Night Manager keep People vs. O.J. Simpson from a clean sweep of categories it was competing in at the ceremony, but I will say that there was a better chance of vote-splitting in that category than in writing, where “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” stood out more.
  • We always said that Tatiana Maslany would have a chance to win if she could just get nominated, but that was when smaller groups determined winners after screenings of submitted episodes. It turns out that her real chance would come when a larger voting body would emerge, and when she had a nomination under her belt to improve visibility (although not enough for Kiefer to know how to pronounce her name).
  • While I expect Allison Janney will keep getting nominated forever, it seems plausible that CBS’ only nominations as part of the main broadcast next year will be Janney and The Late Late Show, which I’m sure will go over well.
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