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Do the Emmys Still Matter?

by AFP
Vince Bucci-Getty Images North America—AFP

Vince Bucci-Getty Images North America—AFP

Ahead of the 68th annual award show, analysts say audiences no longer care about prestige when deciding what to watch.

The 68th Primetime Emmy Awards will honor the best of American television on Sunday, and networks have been inundating media and Television Academy members with pleas for their shows. But with a legion of cable stations, streaming platforms and video on-demand services revolutionizing how Americans watch TV, analysts question whether the awards still have the cultural cachet they once boasted.

“It’s shocking just how irrelevant an Emmy win is when it comes to audiences deciding what shows to watch. People just don’t care about the award,” said Jeetendr Sehdev, a celebrity branding expert at the University of Southern California. “The award has continued to lose its influence on TV viewers with less than one in 10 Americans being more inclined to watch a series because it has won an Emmy.”

Sehdev headed a two-year study ending last week that surveyed 2,000 Americans and found 87 percent believed the Emmys were less significant than the Oscars, while almost three-quarters said they were not “overly excited” by the Emmys show.

Last year, the awards drew their smallest audience on record, 11.9 million, according to data tracker Nielsen, a drop of almost four million on 2014 and the nadir of a quarter-century decline. On top of dwindling ratings, it appears that TV networks are putting less faith than they used to in the power of an Emmys nomination to give them an immediate audience boost.

Of the 14 nominees for outstanding drama and outstanding comedy series this year, only three will be showing new episodes before Christmas, according to entertainment website IndieWire.

This is in marked contrast with just five years ago, when eight of the 12 nominated series returned within two weeks of the Emmys.

September has traditionally fired the starting gun on new seasons for TV’s biggest shows, but streaming services and cable TV are challenging the notion that there should even be an on and off season.

Netflix released Stranger Things, one of the most talked-about series of the year, a full two weeks after voting for Emmys nominations closed, and a new season isn’t expected until next year.

“Traditional networks will become increasingly flexible when it comes to releasing shows in the future,” said Sehdev, author of the upcoming branding guide, The Kim Kardashian Principle. “They’re already taking a closer look at how ratings are being calculated as viewership behavior continues to change.”

He conceded that Emmys boost awareness of a show but said that didn’t necessarily translate into bigger ratings, with many statuettes awarded to shows that were already very well known. “We schedule all year round. We can’t just jam everything into the time period when Emmy nominations come out,” said Nick Grad, president of original programming at Fox subsidiary FX, agreeing that awards don’t always mean ratings.

Fargo aired a while ago and was not airing while Emmy voting was happening, but it still got 18 nominations. At the end of the day, the great shows get noticed so… we’re not really going to game the system that way.”

Another issue for the Emmys is whether Academy members can really claim to be in touch with critical opinion when it comes to handing out honors.

Reviewers have in the past berated the Academy for its tin ear when it comes to comedy and for failing to recognize excellence in drama by snubbing iconic shows like The Wire and Deadwood. Time magazine upbraided the Emmys in 2014 for handing Jim Parsons his fourth outstanding lead comedy actor award for The Big Bang Theory, a show that it said was sitting “comfortably at the bottom of the barrel” of critical opinion.

The Academy was also criticized that year for honoring Modern Family—a show deemed well past its prime—with a fifth consecutive outstanding comedy series award. But it’s not all bad news.

Critics have been kinder about this year’s nominations, praising the Academy for rectifying past mistakes with a shortlist heavy on innovative newcomers like Mr. Robot, Master of None and The People v. O.J. Simpson. It has also been given credit for nominating older series that have inexplicably missed out in the past, such as FX’s acclaimed spy drama The Americans.

FX has been perhaps the biggest early success story of this year’s Emmys, garnering 56 nominations, a new record for a basic cable company.

Regardless of short term ratings boosts, Grad believes an Emmy win can help a show “cut through the clutter” in “an unbelievably crowded marketplace.”

For the network as a whole, he told AFP, wins and nominations “strengthen the viewer proposition of what an FX original program should mean to them, and I’d say that’s tremendous value.”

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