Low interest in favorites could affect ratings

If this year’s Oscarcast is any indication, the primetime Emmys should brace for another year of serious audience erosion.

The latest pack of Emmy noms are expected to be heavily repped by critically acclaimed but low-rated programs like AMC’s “Mad Men.” That’s good news for purists who believe Emmy should award the best and brightest, regardless of popularity. But as Oscar has learned, a nominee field composed of lesser-known, arthouse-type fare comes at a price: lower ratings.

Continuing the downward trend, this February’s Academy Awards dipped to its lowest ratings ever. Pundits have partly blamed the collapse in Academy Awards ratings on the predominance of features that few moviegoers have actually seen. Those films may have earned high creative marks, but auds weren’t compelled to tune in and see whether “There Will Be Blood” or “No Country for Old Men” triumphed. More populist movies, meanwhile, were relegated to craft categories.

Depending on how the nominations go, the Emmys may similarly find themselves with a predominance of contenders that aren’t well known to the viewers at large.

“It just reflects what’s going on in the TV business,” says 20th Century TV marketing senior VP Steven Melnick. “There are fewer hit shows and more smaller-rated shows with passionate fan bases. It speaks to a reality — and in some ways both an opportunity and a challenge — that is bigger than just the Emmys or the TV Academy. It’s the state of broadcast television.”

Emmy was immune to that quandary when more ratings toppers were also critically lauded.

“It’s a source of frustration in a way,” a studio publicity chief says. “It’s become these critically acclaimed but unseen shows getting the accolades and attention, while the shows on the broadcast networks tend to get overlooked.”

The rise in original cable programming helped shift that balance. Targeting a narrower audience, cable series are more edgy than their broadcast competish by design. Cablers also program just a handful of originals, which leads to a better batting average with crix.

It still took a few years for cable to break through the Emmy barrier — feevee HBO did it first and still does it biggest — but basic cable has made big inroads in the nominee field this decade.

“It’s become much more of an opportunity for cable companies to brand themselves in the industry,” a studio exec says. “The majority of campaigning these days is by them. You see all of this packaging by Showtime, the Turner networks, HBO … and not a thing from the broadcast networks.”

The mailers don’t guarantee a nomination — but they help.

The introduction of a blue-ribbon panel as final arbiter of what gets nommed has also led to a broader field of nominees, as Emmy becomes less a popularity contest and more an actual referendum on the year’s top programs.

But it’s not just cable that benefited: Broadcast skeins like “Arrested Development” and “30 Rock” scored comedy series Emmys despite their low audience marks.

That’s the way it should be, says Emmycast producer Ken Ehrlich, who points out that it’s better than the show’s past tendency to nominate the same contenders over and over again, regardless of quality. Now that things have changed, it makes for a much more interesting competish, he notes.

“Fresh blood is good,” he says. “It makes for a less-predictable show.”

But does it hurt ratings? Ehrlich dismisses the comparison with Oscar’s nomination roster.

“Just by definition, TV is a broader medium,” he says. “I don’t know if you can make a comparison between ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘Mad Men.'”

Viewers, after all, can still stumble across TV series while flipping channels, whereas moviegoers have to make a concerted effort to catch those arty films — and only have a short window to do so (unless the DVD is out by Oscar time).

Ehrlich says he’ll wait to see the July 17 nominations before figuring out how to deal with a crop of shows that may be less familiar to auds. That includes possibly upping the entertainment value in other areas — and relying on talent and shows that viewers are aware of.

“A lot of it will be subject to the nominations,” he says. “You’ve got a certain amount of discretionary time to do things other than categories.”

This year, with so many contenders on the cable side — and the broadcast nets hit harder by the strike — a cable sweep in the drama category is conceivable (though unlikely).

Ehrlich says he’s especially excited to see how the strike impacts this year’s tally of noms.

“I think there will probably be some nominees that are less familiar, but that will be good for the (awards) show,” Ehrlich says. “I think this has been a good year for TV. There are terrific shows across the board.”

Emmy noms are announced in mid-July, coinciding with the annual TV Critics Assn. press tour. That gives both webheads and execs a chance to bemoan the process.

Yet another studio exec says her team is “resigned to the fact that it is what it is.

“Our shows are popular, but not critical darlings,” she adds. “At the end of the day, we’ll take the viewers over the award.”

TIP SHEET

What: 60th Primetime Emmy Awards

When: Sept. 21 (nominations to be announced July 17)

Where: Nokia Theater, Los Angeles

Web: Emmys.org

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