On the morning after the Primetime Emmy Awards, producer Don Mischer, host Neil Patrick Harris and CBS were basking in the glow of a rebound.
The raves were almost unanimous, as Mischer, Harris and company restored a bit of luster to an Emmycast badly damaged by last year’s bomb of a show.
And it paid off in the ratings: Sunday’s telecast of the Primetime Emmy Awards posted solid numbers, rising roughly 10% in key demos vs. last year’s record-low averages despite facing a monster NFL game on NBC.
According to preliminary nationals from Nielsen, the Emmycast averaged a 4.2 rating/11 share in adults 18-49 and 13.3 million viewers overall from 8 to 11 p.m., up vs. the previous year on ABC (3.8/9 in 18-49, 12.3 million viewers overall). Sunday’s show marked the most-watched Emmycast since 2006.
For Mischer, CBS and the TV Academy, the numbers and the kudos marked a bit of a vindication after a bumpy road to this year’s show. Their original plan to free up some telecast time by pre-taping (and editing down) a handful of awards drew fierce resistance from writers, directors and thesps — and was eventually dropped as a result.
“The industry did not embrace that idea, and I was fearful we’d have a room of really unhappy people if we attempted to do this pre-tape plan,” Mischer said. “It’s hard to celebrate TV if you don’t have a celebratory mood in the room.”
The decision to scrap those plans forced Mischer and CBS back to the drawing board a little more than a month before airtime.
“We found a new groove,” Mischer said. “Sometimes out of adversity or necessity, better things are implemented. When we lost the battle to pick up more time, we were forced to think out of the box and figure out how to make this show work and keep moving.”
The producer was helped out by another tweak, adopted early on, that grouped awards on the telecast by genre for the first time. Mischer said the decision to hand out back-to-back awards for comedy, reality, longform, variety and drama helped speed up the program.
“We had always thought dividing the show up into genres would make things more interesting,” he said. “Generally, these shows are scattershot. This enabled us to more intentionally focus on one aspect of TV at a time and make things a little more coherent.”
Mischer also upped the irreverence factor: Harris frequently introduced presenters by offering up an obscure credit on their resume, and “The Daily Show’s” Jon Hodgman was brought in as an announcer to spout off obscure trivia — sometimes real, sometimes fake — as winners skipped toward the stage. (Much of the info was gleaned from the nominees, who were sent out an unusual questionnaire earlier this summer.)
“There was some concern that it might come across as too irreverent,” Mischer said. “And a couple of times we thought about canceling it. But we decided that we need to take chances, and went with it, and it by and large worked.”
CBS exec VP of specials Jack Sussman pointed out that the show’s irreverent gags were never snarky and were still in the spirit of celebrating TV. He credited host Harris for setting that tone at the start of the evening.
“You knew four minutes into the broadcast that you were with someone who would thoroughly entertain you and that you were in good hands,” he said. “And Neil’s confidence and comfort level trickled down to the presenters and winners and everything else.”
Mischer said he early on sent Harris a copy of the 1955 Emmycast hosted by Steve Allen — and Harris immediately decided to model his gig on that performance, right down to a white tux similar to the one worn by Allen.
And unlike many modern kudofest hosts, who seem to disappear halfway through a broadcast, Harris hit the stage throughout the evening — by Mischer’s count, at least 34 times. (Most hosts make about 14-16 appearances, he said.)
“We were blessed with Neil,” Mischer said. “What he brought to the show you can’t underestimate. I’ve worked with a lot of great hosts — Carson, Bob Hope. And Neil’s got it. He’s so smart, so quick to roll with things, and doesn’t get stressed out or nervous.”
Mischer said it’s too soon to decide whether he plans to pursue the Emmy gig again next year (having done nine Emmys overall through the years). NBC will broadcast next year’s Emmycast, the last under the current four-network “wheel.”
“I never finish a show and say I want to do it again,” he said. “But I always change my mind. And I love doing the Emmys. I was truly a child of TV. But right now I’m just trying to get some sleep.”
The Emmys now join other kudocasts, such as the Oscars, Grammys, Tonys and Golden Globes, in posting ratings improvements over dismal 2008 performances.
“Event TV is not dead,” Sussman said. “If you can make it an event, and if you have a good partner, you can succeed.”
But the long-term problems facing kudofests like the Emmys have by no means been solved. Despite the improvement, this year’s Emmys looks likely to settle for the second-lowest demo scores on record and the third- smallest overall audience. (In addition to last year, it also edged out the 13 million who watched on Fox in 2007.)
The Emmy aud also declined with each half-hour. After opening with more than 15 million viewers at 8 p.m. (following a big NFL overrun and a shortened version of “60 Minutes”), the kudocast wrapped with a little under 11 million viewers at 10:30 when “30 Rock” and “Mad Men” once again walked away with the top prizes.
Among local markets, the Emmys earned a 12.1 household rating/18 share (flat with last year despite the Giants playing in the football game) and a 10.0/18 in Los Angeles, which was down a surprisingly steep 27% (from 13.7/23).
The “Live From the Red Carpet” spec on E!, hosted by Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic, averaged 1.4 million viewers from 6-8 p.m. ET, up about 15% from last year.
At NBC, the NFL game between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys — the first regular-season contest played in the Cowboys’ new $1.2 billion stadium — delivered the best-ever overnight score for “Sunday Night Football” (16.5 household rating/27 share) and crushed everything in its path.
The game, whose outcome wasn’t decided until the closing seconds, is expected to produce roughly a 10 rating in 18-49 and more than 25 million viewers overall when nationals are released today.