Lessons Learned From the 2020 Primetime Emmys


In a year defined by chaos, the Primetime Emmy Awards somehow captured the moment. A freewheeling format made up for the fact that there were relatively few surprises among the winners Sunday as the show found an easy balance between entertainment and reflecting the turmoil that has gripped the wider world. Here are the top lessons learned from the night.

The Old Ways Are Dead
For what seemed like ages, host Jimmy Kimmel and executive producer Reginald Hudlin leaned into a risky, uncomfortable gag in which Kimmel was made, through deft use of crowd reaction shots from a previous year, to appear to be delivering a monologue to a live audience. Twitter erupted. Furious viewers were either confused and outraged that a crowd of non-socially distanced celebrities had been gathered, or just outraged at what they were certain was a terrible choice akin to pro sports piping artificial crowd noise into empty stadiums. Then, after an excruciating 4 minutes and 45 seconds, Kimmel blew up the joke. He revealed the theater to be empty, then transitioned into a walk-and-talk where he showed off the science fiction-esque set from which he would serve as a virtual master of ceremonies for a show that would weave together more than 140 live feeds from around the world. “What could possibly go right?” he joked.

Plenty, it turned out. Thanks to precision work by Kimmel, Hudlin, director Hamish Hamilton and a crew that more than earned its pay, the Emmys at last did what every awards show has tried to do for years but none has quite managed: innovate. The pace was energized. The jokes were fresh. Speeches that touched on politics, racial injustice and even the abuse of power by the media moguls whose product was being celebrated felt more authentic when delivered from people’s living rooms rather than a theater packed with smiling, glammed rich folks. This Emmys provided proof of a radical concept — that only complete reinvention of the kind seen Sunday night can make awards shows worth watching. Even once it’s possible to gather hundreds of celebrities in a theater again to hand each other statues and clap, the industry should resist the urge to return to normalcy.

Lower Viewership Expectations
And yet for all that, the ratings still sucked. The Emmys sank to an all-time low for the second year in a row — though in some small way, the 6.1 million total-viewer tally for Sunday night can be viewed as a semi-recovery. While it represents a 12% drop from last year’s 6.9 million viewers, that is far less disastrous than the 33% year-over-year plummet the 2019 show suffered. Just two years ago, the Emmys commanded an audience of more than 10 million viewers, and it’s hard to see it recovering to those heights anytime soon. Part of that is clearly attributable to changing viewing habits and overall awards show decline over the past few years. The Oscars sneaked in just before the pandemic hit, but the Emmys dip is not much worse than how other awards shows have performed in the COVID-19 era. Earlier in 2020, the VMAs put up uncannily similar numbers, falling from 6.8 million viewers in 2019 to 6.4 million this time around. Meanwhile, the BET Awards held on to its audience from the year before, albeit a smaller one at 3.7 million.

As the recent downtick in live-sports ratings demonstrates, the pandemic has accelerated trends toward audience fragmentation and on-demand viewing. Those trends are not going to reverse soon. In the short term, the networks carrying these shows will need to adjust their ratings expectations — a tough thing to do, given they’ve already paid for them.

The Emmys wheel deal, which sees the telecast rotate among the Big Four broadcasters from year to year, was renewed in 2018 — a bit of a surprise, as ratings had already begun to ease downward and the broadcast networks had long stopped being significant awards players — and will continue through 2026. It is difficult to envision it continuing long after. ABC and unscripted chief Rob Mills pulled off a great show Sunday. But there were small signs that the network was, perhaps, less than overjoyed to be hosting the Emmys. For instance, viewers who tuned in just prior to the start of the ceremony were not, as usual, greeted with a pre-show, but instead an episode of “Celebrity Family Feud” with Steve Harvey in which members of the band Fall Out Boy defeated their counterparts from Weezer.

The Age of IP Has Arrived
HBO miniseries “Watchmen” made a nerdy bit of history Sunday by becoming the first comic book adaptation to win a series prize at the Emmys. It’s unlikely to be the last. The historic Emmy run of “Game of Thrones” demonstrated that the Television Academy, unlike its feature counterpart, has no squeamishness about honoring genre programming. “Watchmen” provided further proof.

But the real significance of the limited-series win is not that “Watchmen” is a comic book story or a genre story. It’s that “Watchmen,” like an increasing chunk of the highest-end television, is based on corporate-controlled IP. Media consolidation has put massive intellectual-property libraries into the hands of a few companies that now, thanks to the streaming wars, all have their own digital distribution platforms. Plenty of huge-budget series based on that IP are in the works, from the rapid expansion of the “Star Trek” universe under Alex Kurtzman at ViacomCBS to multiple live-action “Spider-Man” series at Sony. WarnerMedia is plotting a spinoff of its yet-to-be-completed, Matt Reeves-helmed “The Batman” for HBO Max. Disney Plus has multiple Kevin Feige-produced “Avengers” spinoff shows in the pipeline. And Amazon is still slow-cooking the one property to rule them all, “The Lord of the Rings.”

It’s inevitable that, as more projects based on well-worn library content begin to stream, more will find their way into the Emmys race. Just how many will depend on ambition. No one had any right to believe that “Watchmen” — a comic very much of the 1980s that spawned a truly awful feature a decade ago, and whose enigmatic co-creator Alan Moore insisted was impossible to adapt — would be as good as it was. It succeeded because HBO and Warner Bros. gave executive producer Damon Lindelof “a lot of latitude to reimagine the story in a way not dissimilar to what Noah Hawley did with FX’s “Fargo,” but on a cosmic scale. Even Disney Plus’ “The Mandalorian,” a surprise drama series nominee and winner of seven Creative Arts Emmys, had a whiff of risk about it, as Lucasfilm allowed Jon Favreau to create a series that feels more like a Western than a third-generation “Star Wars” movie.

HBO Is Still King
FX chief John Landgraf once compared competing with Netflix to “getting shot in the face with money every day.” The streamer’s strategy of bombarding its customers with original programming inspires much grousing but thus far has worked. The company continues to grow subscribers, and its stock is up 17% year to date at a time when most media companies have taken a shellacking.

Yet Netflix still hasn’t seized the awards crown from generational monarch HBO. For three straight years, Netflix has surpassed HBO in total nominations. But after the two services tied with 23 wins each in 2018, HBO reasserted itself the following year with 25 trophies to Netflix’s 23.

This year, with “Game of Thrones” having ended, HBO was supposed to fade. Then came “Watchmen” and “Succession” Season 2. The WarnerMedia service walked away with 30 Emmys after earning 107 nominations. Netflix, meanwhile, got ratioed. The streamer collected 21 Emmys on 160 nominations. On Sunday night’s primetime telecast it was all but shut out, winning only two awards to HBO’s 11.

For all its awards fortune (and money fortune), Netflix has never won an Emmy in one of the three major series categories — drama, comedy or limited. Since the O.G. Netflix original “House of Cards” premiered in 2013, HBO has won 13 awards in those categories. Hail to the king.