Nominees loved by critics but not by auds

By nominating some of the most deserving series of the year, the TV Academy may be sacrificing ratings for credibility.

It’s hard to argue against this year’s top Emmy Award nominees: AMC’s “Mad Men” is adored by critics, NBC’s “30 Rock” is arguably one of the decade’s top comedies, and ABC’s “Pushing Daisies” is a creative gem.

Yet none of those series are ratings hits. “Mad Men” barely cracks a million viewers, “30 Rock” still struggles in adults 18-49, and “Pushing Daisies” hasn’t aired since December.

The Academy Awards faced a similar issue this year — showcasing a crop of critic-approved but little-seen nominees — and paid for it with the telecast’s worst ratings ever.

The Emmycast is already coming off its lowest-rated perf in 17 years; could this year’s show slide even further?

“There are probably some things we need to do to bring an audience in,” producer Ken Ehrlich said Thursday. “So much of that will be in the promotion of the show.”

ABC, which is airing this year’s Emmys, and the TV Academy have a difficult mission. Not only will the ceremony center on programs that few have seen, but there’s also that slight chance that SAG could go on strike, forcing producers to draw up contingency plans they’ll hopefully not have to use (“We’re optimistic, and sending out good vibes,” TV Academy chairman John Shaffner said).

Then there’s the show’s competition, its toughest in years. This year’s Emmycast, set for Sept. 21, is slated to go up against a Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers smackdown on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” telecast.

It’ll be brutal.

The good news for the Emmys: Ehrlich and the TV Acad will have plenty to play with this year to balance that nominee conundrum. Given the show’s 60th anniversary, Ehrlich plans to showcase a great deal of TV lore into the ceremony, for starters.

“We’ve come up with a number of things that we’ll do that tie together TV’s history, the past and present and even the future,” he said. “The things we have planned are very celebratory of TV.”

The kudos will also be held for the first time at downtown’s Nokia Theater, and Ehrlich is planning to take advantage of the location — perhaps even stage some elements of the show outside the auditorium. “It’s a great new space to work in,” said TV Academy chairman John Shaffner. “We’re charged up about it.”

This year’s list of nominees also includes a well-stocked selection of Academy Award winners and stars — and not just in the longform categories (where actors Ralph Fiennes and Kevin Spacey just landed their first Emmy noms).

The lead drama actress category in particular is filled with award-winning thesps Glenn Close, Sally Field and Holly Hunter.

And if this year’s nomination announcement is any indication, reality TV — these days the most populist of the Emmy categories — may play an even larger role at this year’s show. The TV Acad opted to announce the nominees for the inaugural host category on camera Thursday morning, alongside the usual drama, comedy and longform thesps.

Yes, we’re living in a world where millions more people have caught Ryan Seacrest teasing Simon Cowell or Howie Mandel asking models to “open the case” than have seen Jon Hamm steal scenes in “Mad Men.” Whether that’s depressing is irrelevant: That’s TV reality circa 2008, and the Emmycast will have to reflect that.

But no matter how much marketing is thrown behind the show, or how many bells and whistles are attached to the telecast, the truth is that most awards shows are hurting for auds these days.

In the case of the Emmys, it’s a function of how the business has shifted.

Cable nets can afford to target narrow audiences with edgier, more complex fare that attract critics — and now, Emmy voters. Those nets also air fewer shows, allowing for heftier and more targeted Emmy campaigns.

And now that a blue-ribbon panel plays a role in who gets nominated, the Emmys have become a more accurate representation of the year’s best fare.

At the very least, that means this year’s Emmys — held a day before the season starts — will more accurately than ever serve as a showcase of the very best on TV.

“What a show like the Emmys can do, and if you can get people to tune in, is to serve almost as a check list for viewers,” Shaffner said. “I don’t know if there’s a better preview of the coming season. A lot of these shows don’t have huge audiences, but the Emmys is a good place to find out about them.”

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