Which Way, Emmys?

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

Last night was the 61st prime-time Emmy Awards, the television industry's biggest night, and the question has to be: who cares?

I'm not trying be provocative, I'm asking the question the TV academy has got to be asking itself: who really cares about the Emmys? Who is our audience?

Awards shows have two potential groups of consumers – those inside the industry honoring itself, and the general public. The Rammys – which honors members of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington – is what their website calls "one of the areas' most anticipated and glamorous evenings," but I'm sure they don't expect the winners to be front-page news the next day in the post. They know who their audience is. On the opposite end of the spectrum is, for instance, the Teen Choice Awards, which is really just a TV show aimed at a desirable demographic that happens to give away awards – they're actually painted surfboards.

Of course, the Academy Awards is the best example of an awards show that appeals perfectly to both insiders and outsiders. Its TV broadcast is still watched by hundreds of millions of people around the world. And an Oscar also means a huge amount to people in the industry and the industry itself – not only creatively, but commercially. A performer who wins Best Supporting Actor can raise his quote; a Best Picture win can still result in a second-wind at the box office.

So where do the Emmys fit in? Thirteen million Americans watched last night's show, an increase over last year, but still a poor second to Sunday Night Football.

Ironically, both the Emmy and Oscars telecasts are suffering because TV and movies are so good right now. Terrific, indie-scale movies have been taking home all the Oscar hardware, so the film academy recently increased the number of Best Picture nominees to ten to make sure some blockbusters were included in the Oscar broadcast – obviously, big movies appeal to a bigger audience. On the TV side, Mad Men and 30 Rock deserve their accolades. Unfortunately, their audiences are relatively small and the number of Americans who would turn to the Emmys to see their stars is equally small.

With that small audience, and the fact that Emmys don't really had a real impact on the viewership of the shows they honor, the awards are neither very important to the public at large or the industry, at least to the business as a whole. The question is: should the Academy slant its big night to one group or the other; ignore the audience and make it an industry love fest, or change the rules and the broadcast to ensure maximum TV audience?

Of course the truth is, they Academy can't ignore the audience. The income from the telecast is responsible for % of the Academy's budget.

A recent move by the Academy indicates that they're keenly aware of that fact. To shorten the show, they proposed pre-taping eight writing honors and airing edited versions during the broadcast. After all, no one watches the Emmys for the writers. But the writers are the driving force behind TV – and they protested this move and won. Next year, the show's producers may start the live show a bit earlier than the actual broadcast so that they can tighten up the show as it goes along and not single out any one group.

That's great. Tighten it up. Think about the audience. But do that after thinking about how best to honor your own. An awards show will mean nothing to a TV audience if it isn't important to the people sitting in the audience. And especially right now with TV going though major changes, people in the TV business need all the love they can get…even at the cost of a few ratings points.

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's thoughts or subscribe to the podcast at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman