Last week, as I do every year, I published a ranker of the 2020-21 TV season’s most-watched series on broadcast and cable — you know, the legacy outlets now referred to in the industry, with a touch of derision, as “linear TV.” No surprise, the ratings continue their downward slope: The most-watched show of the just completed season, CBS’ “NCIS,” averaged 12.7 million viewers; five years ago, “NCIS” was also TV’s most-watched drama, at 20.5 million, and “The Big Bang Theory” was tops overall in entertainment, with 20.6 million.
Yes, it’s a reminder that the way audiences consume TV has greatly changed over the past five years. And yet, that focus on the decline misses something actually pretty impressive: Broadcast shows like “NCIS” (which just finished its 18th season), ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” (17 seasons) and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” (22 seasons) continue to have massive staying power and tremendous fan bases. And because they boast such large episodic libraries, they’re all among the most-watched acquired shows on streaming.
In the world of the Emmy Awards, however, these shows seem to no longer exist. The last time “SVU” received an Emmy nomination was in 2011, when Mariska Hargitay was included in the drama lead actress race — an award she won for the show in 2006. “Grey’s Anatomy” last earned a nom in 2012, for drama guest actress Loretta Devine, who won that same category in 2011 (the show’s last Emmy). And “NCIS” has earned only three nominations in its entire history, most recently in 2013 for stunt coordination.
Of course, it’s nothing new that Emmy voters tire of a series; “ER” went from 23 nominations in its first season to two in its final; “Modern Family,” once an Emmy juggernaut, landed just three nods last year, in its final season. (Animated series like “The Simpsons” — at 32 seasons — and variety programs like “Saturday Night Live” and the talk shows are exceptions, of course.) But the Emmy shift away from the broadcast networks is also a well-documented phenomenon that accelerated over the past decade. We know the stats: In 2010, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox garnered a combined 215 nominations; last year, it was 121.
Among primetime scripted series, only three entries received five or more nominations last year, and they were all on NBC: “The Good Place,” “This Is Us” and “Will & Grace.” And ultimately, the only broadcast programs to win multiple Emmys were either out of primetime (“Saturday Night Live”) or specials (“Live in Front of a Studio Audience” and the Oscars).
The problem for the broadcasters is twofold. First, they collectively appear to have just one live-action primetime scripted series at the moment with any Emmy mojo, and it’s “This Is Us” — which will end its run next year, after six seasons. But second, the biggest network trend coming out of this year’s upfront presentations — franchise mania — won’t help when it comes to awards. Broadcasters are smartly leaning on expansive brands like the “Law & Order,” “Chicago,” “FBI,” “NCIS” and “9-1-1” worlds, and those lend themselves to longevity but not to awards.
Pundits are constantly wondering how to incorporate the broadcasters back into the Emmys fold. Just as the Oscars struggle with how to recognize fan-friendly films (and briefly introduced an ill-fated blockbuster category), the Emmys also have seen viewership fall as TV splinters into multiple niche offerings. In radio, songs that continue to get spins months or even years after release are put in a special category, “recurrents.” Perhaps there’s a way for Emmy to recognize those workhorses — TV’s recurrents. A category where long-running shows get their due could be fun, and give a bit of attention to the “SVUs” and “Grey’s” of the world.