Friday, August 28, 2009

Can the Emmys Be Saved From Bad Ratings?

TV's biggest prize will be on the minds of a lot of people in Hollywood, or anyone who likes TV.
Emmy season gets underway this weekend with the Daytime Emmys. The Creative Arts version takes place on September 13th, and the Primetime Emmys on the 20th. Even though the show brings out the most popular actors on TV, it hasn't translated into big ratings.

The Daytime Emmys was close to not being televised at all until the CW agreed to broadcast it. It's hoping to get a female audience in order to promote its new season. The Creative Arts Emmys, shown on E!, doesn't have to worry about ratings. It's just happy that people behind the scenes get a chance to shine, even if it's on a niche channel.

The Primetime Emmys, however, has been losing viewers in recent years. It's hoped Neil Patrick Harris can bring the magic he had for the Tonys last June to boost the show when it airs on CBS. Last year, the show drew 12 million viewers, an all-time low. There's been a lot of theories about what it's been happening.

One theory is that the show rewards the best TV shows, but not the most popular ones.
That may sound strange. Good TV shows already pull in a big audience, right?
That may be true in the 1990's, but not in today's TV landscape of cable channels producing more creative shows than the Big Four, who rely on spinoffs, reality shows and singing contests. The Academy decided to expand the number of nominees in major categories, hoping to reward popular shows. However, that hasn't stopped cable from dominating some categories, or staying competitive with the networks in others.

In Best Drama, five of the seven nominees are from cable, including Damages, Dexter and Mad Men. House and Lost are both top 20 shows, and made the list. However, more popular shows like CSI, The Mentalist, and Grey's Anatomy did not.

The race for Best Comedy is more even, with four of the shows from the Big Four. However, only The Office is a top 20 show. Two and a Half Men didn't make the final cut, although it has in past years. The Big Bang Theory has a Best Actor nominee in Jim Parsons, but hasn't been considered Best Comedy.

It even affects American Idol, the biggest show on TV. It has eight nominations this year, but has never beaten the perennial winner for Best Reality Show, The Amazing Race. Dancing With the Stars hasn't had much luck, either.

Another possibility is that Emmy voters keep nominating the same people. The nominees in the major acting categories are about the same as last year. If there are changes, it's due to adding an extra nominee. That's why Elizabeth Moss is up for Best Actress in a Drama, or Sarah Silverman and Toni Collette are in the race for Best Actress in a Comedy. Simon Baker may be happy to be up for Best Actor in a Drama only because the field is six nominees instead of five.

Still, is there one guaranteed formula that can turn the Emmys into a ratings success just like an American Idol, or even America's Got Talent? On the other hand, is it really necessary? The Emmys honor the best in TV, and normally shouldn't have to justify broadcasting it on any of the four major networks with big ratings. Does it make sense to cancel the show, or at least move it to cable, because not enough people are watching?

Five years ago, this question would be too off-the-wall to be even asked. But now, with concerns about ratings, production costs, and the economy, it may have to be asked. The fact that the Daytime Emmys have found their way to the CW, a net-let according to some, may be a hint of the future. Could it mean the 2011 Primetime Emmys will be shown on MyNetwork TV, or Bravo or TNT?

Or maybe someone like Neil Patrick Harris can give the Emmys the ratings boost it needs to be popular again. At the very least, it would postpone the answering of some hard questions for another year or two.

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