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The Importance of the Emmys: Ratings and Reputation

July 3rd, 2019   ||    by David Bloom

If you live in certain areas of Los Angeles, it’s been nearly impossible to avoid Emmy “For Your Consideration” campaigns. But for all the money spent chasing an Emmy, one question remains: What’s the importance of the Emmys when it comes to ratings?

When ‘Blues’ Found (a Little) Green

The answer has evolved even as television has. Back in 1981, NBC kept Hill Street Blues going despite first-season ratings that put the show 87th of 96 shows, according to The New York Times.

Even with a poorly tested pilot and NBC a struggling network, the show was still attracting high-end advertisers, according to Mental Floss. Advertisers took a risk, but it paid off when Blues won eight Emmys its first season, the most for a debut until this record was eclipsed by The West Wing in 2000.

Viewership increased, somewhat, but Blues never did become a ratings champ, with the Chicago Tribune describing them as “often sagging.”

Mad for Ads

Fast forward to the mid-2000s, when pay TV dominated the dial. Quartz recounted AMC’s desire to retool its stodgy movie-channel image with daring original shows, turning to Mad Men, a period piece about problematic ad executives.

Viewership rose after Mad Men started winning Emmys (including Outstanding Drama Series for its first season), according to Vox, but was never a ratings juggernaut. Mad Men, however, benefited from then-new time-shifting, which boosted viewership and made it one of the most DVR’d series, IGN reported. Not incidentally, the show reshaped AMC’s reputation.

Comedy Kings Rule Ratings

The payoff for Emmy-winning comedies has been more considerable.

Winning five Outstanding Comedy Series Emmys, Modern Family was a network TV titan for its 11-season run, Fortune reported. While viewership eventually declined, it averaged 10 million viewers in its first few seasons, all the while capturing that elusive TV gold.

A critical and commercial success, it offered a sure thing for TV advertisers.

Emmys’ Greater Value

So what can be said for an Emmy win when it comes to ratings? Comedy comes out on top while drama can lend prestige.

On the other hand, Netflix, Amazon, and HBO don’t carry ads, so ratings matter far less than subscriber growth and churn. If award-winning programming persuades people to sign up and stick around, they win. Winning Emmys can be a big differentiator in this era of endless choice.

The 2020 Emmys likely will feature the first shows from online services by Disney, WarnerMedia, Apple, Walmart’s Vudu, and NBCUniversal, alongside all those ambitious incumbents trying to hold their ground. Though few of those services will carry ads or depend on ratings, the importance of the Emmys could be greater than ever in the battle for TV viewers’ attention.

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