The 56th annual Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday night scored the franchise's smallest audience -- about 14 million viewers -- since the disaster of 1990.
But honestly, how many people did you expect to watch a three-hour ceremony in which trophies are showered on TV programs that hardly anyone saw?
Al Pacino and Meryl Streep in HBO's "Angels in America."
(HBO via Reuters)
With ABC's Emmycast down by about 4 million viewers from last year -- and only about 2 million viewers ahead of 1990, when the trophy show aired on Fox and two other broadcast networks counterprogrammed with new-season premieres -- CBS managed to win the Sunday ratings race with a football overrun, "60 Minutes" and crime-drama reruns, according to preliminary numbers.
Asked to navel-gaze about the numbers, most television suits contacted simply stated the obvious: When HBO dominates the ceremony, as it did Sunday night, you're awarding honors to programs that aren't even available in two-thirds of the country's TV homes.
"At around 9 o'clock it became the Cable Ace Awards," quipped one executive, referring to the awards ceremony started by the cable industry to honor its own in the days before the Emmys began recognizing cable programs. More than half of the trophies were handed out to "shows a broadcast network audience isn't focused on . . . shows that are available in only 30 percent of the country and which the remaining 70 percent has no rooting interest in."
HBO, in fact, racked up wins in more than half of the 27 categories covered during Sunday's ceremony at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. And the most spectacular Emmys moment -- the acceptance speech delivered by drinks-from-the-cup-of-crazy TV veteran Elaine Stritch after being named best performer in a variety or music program -- was for an HBO special, "Elaine Stritch: At Liberty," that averaged 339,000 viewers when it premiered on a Saturday night in May.
Not long after Stritch's acceptance speech, in a comedy bit telecast from a men's room at the Shrine Auditorium (yes, there was a televised urinal comedy bit, really, you should have watched), Chris Rock shouted at show host Garry Shandling, "Who the hell is Elaine Stitch!?" He was, in fact, speaking for millions of TV viewers across the country.
But the HBO wins aren't entirely to blame. All of the broadcast TV shows that went home with statuettes Sunday night either have yet to attain critical mass or are on their way out (if not gone entirely) ratings-wise.
In fact, just one of the 13 shows that divvied up the 27 Emmys attained, in the course of the TV season, as many viewers as did Sunday's Emmy broadcast. That one show was ABC's own broadcast of February's Academy Awards ceremony, which clocked nearly 44 million viewers; it was named best directed variety, music or comedy program.
HBO's critically heralded miniseries adaptation of "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the '80s and the AIDS epidemic, mopped up as expected, winning seven times Sunday. Including the miniseries' four wins during the non-televised portion of this year's Emmy competition, "Angels" not only topped this year's derby, it also snapped the long-held miniseries record of nine Emmys won by ABC's "Roots" in 1977.
While widely acclaimed critically, "Angels in America" opened with an average of only 4.1 million viewers in December; the second three hours of the six-hour project opened the following week with an average of about 3 million.
HBO's "The Sopranos," which won four times Sunday night, including a first-ever cable win for best drama series, averaged just under 10 million viewers in its most recent season, March through June.
Actress Allison Janney took home Sunday's only Emmy awarded to NBC's "The West Wing" -- a series that last season was down to fewer than 12 million viewers.
Best drama series actor James Spader was feted for his work on "The Practice," which ABC finally put out of its misery last season after it averaged only 9 million viewers.
Fox's "Arrested Development" was an unexpected winner Sunday night, named best comedy series, among three wins; it averaged a meager 6.2 million viewers in its freshman season and Fox suits surprised critics when they renewed it.
Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon finally got recognized by the TV academy for their work on HBO's "Sex and the City," which averaged about 6.4 million viewers in its final season and 10.6 million viewers for its series finale -- the show's most watched episode ever.
Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce were paid tribute for their roles on defunct "Frasier," which dropped to 11 million viewers as it wound down its long run on NBC.
The list goes on and on. Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" scored a coup when it picked up its second consecutive win for best variety series. It also won for best writing on a variety series. The show, hosted by Jon Stewart, is averaging 1.1 million viewers this year and, during the GOP convention in New York, enjoyed its most watched week ever -- 1.3 million viewers.
Best TV movie of the year went to HBO's "Something the Lord Made," which opened to 2.5 million viewers in May. HBO's rootin'-tootin' western "Deadwood," handed the Emmy for best drama series directing, averaged just 5 million viewers in its freshman season.
Even CBS's "Amazing Race," which nabbed its second consecutive win for best reality series, is less popular than other broadcast TV reality series. This summer, "Amazing Race" is averaging about 11 million viewers; compare that with the 25 million viewers for "American Idol"; or CBS's "Survivor," the last two editions of which hung out in the low 20 millions last season; or NBC's "The Apprentice," which bowed with nearly 21 million viewers in its first edition.