The Emmy Awards' Harsh Reality

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

After broadcast TV execs received word about the ratings on their beloved Emmy Awards yesterday morning, they flung themselves on casting couches and chewed the cushions in an ecstasy of grief.

Sunday's 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, celebrating all that's best and brightest on cable TV (and broadcast series that do cable-like ratings) and featuring superannuated stars of '70s shows and a five-headed reality-TV host, had inexplicably attracted the franchise's smallest audience in its history.

A mere 12.2 million viewers caught the 3-hour 8-minute orgy of trophy dispensing and politically charged speechifying. And while that's a terrific number for many of the night's big winners -- AMC's "Mad Men" averages about 925,000 viewers; HBO's "John Adams" and FX's "Damages," 2 million-ish; AMC's "Breaking Bad," 1.4 million; Comedy Central's "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," 1.6 million; and NBC's "30 Rock," 6.5 million -- it's just another insult for the broadcast networks that for years have shelled out a license fee for permission to broadcast what has become a cable infomercial.

HBO bagged 26 Emmys this year, including 13 for "John Adams," which makes it the winningest miniseries in Emmy history. The pay-cabler's "Recount" took another three.

AMC's awards included the historic "Mad Men" win for best drama series -- the first time a basic-cable series has won a best-series trophy -- and "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston's surprise win for best drama-series actor.

NBC's struggling series "30 Rock" mopped up in the comedy competition. Ironically, when star/writer Tina Fey was onstage literally begging people to watch her show, NBC was pounding the tar out of the Emmycast with its Green Bay Packers-Dallas Cowboys football game, which logged about 19 million viewers (reliable stats won't be available until today).

Even more alarming for serious students of Emmycasts, the ceremony gained viewers only between its first and second half-hours. It held on to that number for about 30 minutes, then began its ratings swan dive. In its final half-hour, the trophy show averaged only about 1 million more viewers than when it began.

On the bright side, only about 10.6 million people saw Oprah Winfrey open the show with her TV Is Awesome speech, delivered in a faux British accent. The five-headed host, a.k.a. Ryan Seacrest, Tom Bergeron, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Jeff Probst, then filed onstage and began to marvel at how they'd had the cheek to come out with absolutely nothing prepared -- except that Klum was going to be yanked out of her tuxedo, revealing black sparkly shorts in which she would flounce about a bit.

"Really, this is completely unscripted!" Seacrest boasted. As if to assure the audience it was true, he begged them to look at the teleprompter, which was empty, as empty as the five heads onstage. Oprah must've felt pretty foolish.

On Seacrest's syndicated radio program yesterday morning, he and Probst reminisced about their unprecedented Emmy opening act:

"That was fun night last night . . . just a blast," Probst said to one of only three people in the whole world who would agree with him. (Apparently both men had missed the acceptance speech best supporting actor in a comedy Jeremy Piven gave. "What if I just kept talking for 12 minutes; what would happen?" Piven sneered. Then he answered his own question: "That was the [show] opening," and the audience erupted in approval.)

"Here's why it was nerve-racking," Seacrest said of the Emmy-hosting gig. "For a while, we didn't have anything until we came up with the fact that our 'something' was 'nothing.' . . . And once finally I realized that we had nothing and that 'nothing' was being honest, and that was real . . . we actually, we were good. . . . I say we were 'good' not in terms of 'I thought we were great,' I'm just saying we were done, we did it, we're good, we're out. We were good, we're good -- right?" Seacrest said.

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