For viewers tuning in to the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards in search of acclaimed series to sample this fall, the constant deluge that is “peak TV” might feel more like a drizzle.
Of the 14 nominees for Outstanding Drama and Outstanding Comedy Series, only three—”Modern Family” (ABC), “Black-ish” (ABC) and “Transparent” (Amazon)—are slated to air new episodes before the beginning of 2017. As recently as 2011, eight of the 12 nominated series returned from the summer hiatus within two weeks of the Emmy telecast, while a ninth, “Breaking Bad,” wrapped up its fourth season in the same span.
With so few nominated series in originals this fall, have the Emmys lost their promotional punch?
Though Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara recently called the Emmys “the last traditional, tangible mark of success” in the medium’s fast-changing landscape, it’s clear that the timing of the TV Academy’s annual honors no longer reflects the industry’s own approach to programming, much less modern viewing habits.
September remains the traditional start of the broadcast TV season, but for the cable, premium, and streaming outlets that have come to dominate the Emmys, it’s simply the month between “Stranger Things” (Netflix) and “The Walking Dead” (AMC). And for time-shifting, cord-cutting, binge-watching audiences, the calendar of premieres and finales has become no more than a suggestion. Miss the latest season of “Better Call Saul” (AMC) the first time around? No matter: Purchase it from Amazon Video now, or stream it on Netflix later.
In terms of Nielsen ratings, the Emmy effect is negligible, according to both GoldDerby.com’s Tom O’Neil and Richard Licata, CEO of Licata & Co., which specializes in TV awards campaigns.
“There hasn’t been any quantitative proof that being nominated or winning has boosted ratings,” Licata said, citing HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” as two series that amassed sizable audiences over several seasons before nabbing the Emmy. “What has emerged is kind of like, the tail is wagging the dog. You almost have to have a very high public visibility and popularity to make it into the contest and ultimately win.”
It’s an open question whether audiences, sorting through an unprecedented number of original scripted series, even include the TV Academy’s seal of approval in their calculus. When USC marketing professor Jeetendr Sehdev surveyed viewers on the subject, he found that fewer than 10% of respondents said they were more likely to watch a series because it had won an Emmy. “The Emmys actually don’t matter that much nowadays,” Sehdev told Marketplace’s Adriene Hill in 2015. “Once upon a time, the power of an Emmy was very much in its ultimate power, which was moving audiences.”
While separating the vaunted “Emmy bump” from other factors, including promotional campaigns, support from critics, and positive word-of-mouth, is near-impossible, there are recent examples of Emmy-nominated and Emmy-winning series seeing noticeable growth in the Nielsen ratings in subsequent seasons.
After receiving its first of four consecutive Comedy Series nominations in 2011, “The Big Bang Theory” (CBS) jumped from a fourth season average of 13.4 million total viewers to 15.9 million in its fifth. After winning the first of its five consecutive Emmys in the same category, “Modern Family” leapt from 9.39 million to 11.89 million average total viewers. The second season of “Homeland” (Showtime), which debuted shortly after the series’ surprise Drama Series win in 2012, attracted 45% more average total viewers than the first.
O’Neil said the long-term impact of winning an Emmy is substantial even when it doesn’t lead to a spike in viewership. For instance, Tina Fey has credited the Emmy success of “30 Rock” with saving the series from the scrap heap—and it’s since earned NBC at least $500 million from the sale of syndication rights, according to O’Neil. Other classic series, including “All in the Family,” “Cheers” and “Hill Street Blues,” have won a reprieve after winning the Emmy.
“This is the Emmys’ most important legacy,” O’Neil says. “Many of the greatest shows in TV history never would have survived if they hadn’t won Emmys early on and convinced their networks to have patience and give them better time slots.”
If the Emmy effect on Nielsen ratings is minimal, though—especially when compared to the well-established box-office effect of Oscar nominations and wins—why are networks pouring resources into “For Your Consideration” campaigns?
Licata, a former executive at NBC, Showtime, HBO, and Fox, suggested that there are multiple factors at play. For one, the words “Emmy nominee” and “Emmy winner” are effective marketing tools in the growing (and increasingly global) business of TV, a way of cutting through the clutter of choices now available to audiences. And at a moment in which competition for name-brand actors and directors is fierce, a well-mounted Emmy campaign is a signal to talent that networks are serious about supporting quality series, even those that aren’t yet breakout hits. (Plus, O’Neil added, “you can’t put a price” on winning approval from your peers and a place in the history books as an Emmy winner.)
Indeed, the fall calendar suggests that an immediate, short-term ratings bump is no longer at the top of the networks’ priority lists. Even if one includes the four major acting categories for Drama and Comedy Series, the number of series with at least one nomination to appear on the schedule through the end of the year only increases to 11: Joining “Modern Family,” “Black-ish,” and “Transparent” are Fox’s “Last Man on Earth” (Will Forte), “Empire” (Taraji P. Henson) and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (Andre Braugher); CBS’ “Mom” (Allison Janney); NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” (Kate McKinnon); ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder” (Viola Davis); and Showtime’s “Shameless” (William H. Macy) and “The Affair” (Maura Tierney).
The new focus for the “Emmy bump,” rather, seems to be the difficult-to-pin-down influence awards can have on a TV show or network’s “brand,” rather than raw numbers. Call it the AMC effect: Coupled with their availability on iTunes and later Netflix, “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” parlayed their multiple Emmy wins into stronger ratings—and, maybe more importantly, redefined AMC as a trusted purveyor of TV drama, a reputation that’s now sustained by “Better Call Saul” and “Halt and Catch Fire,” if not the more lucrative “Walking Dead” franchise.
“‘Breaking Bad’ was launched at the Emmys,” O’Neil said. “When Bryan Cranston won that first year, that gave the network confidence to bolster promotion. The Emmys absolutely helped that show climb in importance.”
And, as Licata noted, it’s not impossible to imagine another critically acclaimed series with paltry ratings benefiting, in the long run, from a little bit of Emmy love.
“I’m still hopeful, in an age of binge-watching, that if ‘The Americans’ happens to win—and it would be a surprise win—it will shine a very bright light on that show,” he said of FX’s extraordinary spy drama, which earned nominations for Outstanding Drama Series and leads Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell for the first time this year. “It will be incumbent on FX at that point to do some kind of promotion to encourage people to watch the first four seasons,” he adds. “But if it doesn’t win, it’s going to be a much bigger challenge.”