Live TV is a spectator sport. So during the Emmy Awards on Sunday night, my Twitter feed put aside politics and instead pelted reactions to the ceremony we were collectively watching. Swoons about that dress, reactions to that speech, joy about that win. GIF usage abounded.
As my transformed Twitter feed showed, the 2019 Emmys was for me — and for other people in a pop-culture obsessed subset of the population. Deadline reports that that only accounts to roughly 6.9 million viewers tuning into the Emmys — a record ratings low.
Like many live awards shows, the Emmys has struggled to draw a broader audience in recent years. This year’s ceremony on FOX was down 23% from last year’s Monday night show on NBC — and the 2018 show had already made history as Emmys’ least-watched ceremony to date. In 2018, the Oscars also reached its lowest viewership ever, before rising in 2019.
Sunday night’s dramatic drop in Emmy viewership is partially explained by its stiff competition. The show was competing against Sunday Night Football on NBC.
But the drop also fits into a larger pattern, bigger than football. Aside from a jump in CBS’ 2017 broadcast, the Emmys ceremony has been declining in ratings every year. The low numbers are kind of ironic for the Emmys, considering the Emmys is a TV show about TV shows.
In the face of a concerning downward ratings spiral, the Emmys creative team has tried new things — which explains this year’s hostless ceremony and Thomas Lennon’s cheeky (and occasionally controversial) commentary.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter how many people watch the Emmys, so long as the right people are watching the Emmys and can soak up advertisements. The Emmy audience – even if its numbers are dwindling — are America’s cohort of the TV-obsessed. This is the exact subset of the population that content networks and streaming services are targeting.
During the E! Red carpet pre-show and the ceremony, pastel-hued teasers for Ryan Murphy’s star-studded new show The Politician, premiering September 27 on Netflix, aired during nearly every commercial break. Amazon advertised its original shows, too, though the ceremony itself functioned as an advertisement, with Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag snatching up awards in several categories. Emmys broadcaster Fox paraded its crown jewel, The Masked Singer. And, thanks to the hostless ceremony, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel were able to make a joke about Alexa taking their jobs. That’s yet another plug for Amazon.
These streaming services know the people they’re catering to — and they’re all tweeting GIFs about celebrities at the Emmys and who’s winning what. Just like movie trailers premiere during the Golden Globes and beer commercials look sumptuous during football games, the Emmy Awards are a showcase for TV shows.
TV’s biggest night is about what to watch next. So long as there are award shows, there will be a place to parade next year’s potential nominees, and a way for networks to earn advertising revenue. And so the cycle will continue — ratings drop or not.