The 2019 primetime Emmys hit record low ratings, but why?

Emmy in shadow

Updated on December 10, 2021

This year’s primetime Emmys were held on Sunday. Originally, I wasn’t planning to write about them: I didn’t watch this year’s ceremonies; nothing animated was nominated for any of the main awards; and I don’t watch any of the nominated shows (“Game of Thrones,” “Pose,” etc.). I was also watching a mix of Sunday Night Football and a Seattle Sounders soccer game on at the same time.

Still, what did catch my attention was the news that this year’s Emmy Awards was the least watched one in its history. According to the Hollywood Reporter, ratings for this year’s host-less, Fox-broadcast Emmys hit an all-time low. Viewership fell below 10 million viewers for the first time—6.9 million, a third less than last year’s show on NBC.

On the plus side, this year saw Billy Porter of the TV show “Pose” win for best actor in a drama series, as the first openly gay Black actor to do so.

Why the low ratings?

2012 Vizio TV set
Photo by Anthony Dean.

Regardless of how “Thrones” fans felt about its final season, I’d figure it’d make this year’s Emmys a bigger draw, but apparently that wasn’t the case. As for why the lower ratings, a few possible reasons some have suggested include:

  • A hostless format this year, which was critically panned. An Entertainment Weekly article concludes the Emmys people saw the ratings uptick from this year’s hostless Oscars, and tried to follow suit. There’s also that Fox doesn’t have any late night talk show hosts to draw from, unlike the other networks (which’d explain an animated Homer Simpson “on stage” in the introduction).
  • Lower ratings due to airing on Fox. Perhaps, but Fox isn’t the less-prominent network from the early 90s anymore—the Emmys should be a ratings draw as much as if it were on any other network. That said, Fox’s shorter broadcast hours as a network means fewer chances to plug the Emmys.
  • Competition on other networks. Judging from the ratings, I wasn’t the only one tuned into other networks when the Emmys were on. The usual ratings giant for Sundays in the fall is “Sunday Night Football.”
  • A lack of a permanent network. A Vulture article notes that the show rotates among the BIg Four networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) each year, so there’s little incentive for the network to promote the show. That’s compared to, say, the Tonys permanently airing on CBS each year.

My guesses for the Emmys’ problems

I have a few of my own suggestions for the Emmys’ problems.

The fractured state of modern TV

Unlike movies and theater, TV isn’t the shared experience that it was back in the 90s. To wit:

  • The top rated scripted TV show in the 1998-1999 TV season, “ER,” drew a 17.8 rating and 25.4 million viewers.
  • The top rated scripted TV show in the 2018-2019 TV season, “The Big Bang Theory,” drew a 10.6 rating and 18.5 million viewers.

That’s despite the US population growing from 281 million people in 2000 to a projected 329.7 million in 2019., or a 17.3% increase.

Of course, how we get media’s changed a lot since the turn of the millennium. Between streaming, DVDs, video games, the internet, etc., there’s fewer people nowadays watching the same TV show, let alone at the same set time. And the TV shows these days that are popular aren’t necessarily on broadcast network TV. Which brings me to…

Broadcast network TV’s less relevant nowadays

The Big Four networks aren’t as prominent as they were in the 90s. Most of the hot shows are on cable or streaming services these days, from “Game of Thrones” to “Pose.” Even cartoons are such—the most popular cartoons of the past few decades are on cable or streaming, from “Steven Universe” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” to “Rick and Morty” and “BoJack Horseman.” Meanwhile, two of the most prominent cartoons on broadcast TV are a pair of 90s leftovers (“The Simpsons” and “Family Guy”).

There’s various reasons for this—a wider range of choices, more freedom from broadcast TV (and FCC) censorship standards, more freedom to cover a variety of topics, fewer gatekeeping aspects, etc. As such, maybe it’s not surprising that this year’s Emmys saw only two awards won by any shows on the Big Four networks—and both of those were for “Saturday Night Live.” This might possibly give even less reason for the broadcast networks to care about promoting the Emmys, if they can’t win what’s supposed to be television’s highest honor.

The future of the Emmys?

As for the Emmys’ future, they’ve renewed their deal with the Big Four to air through 2026, so I assume it’s the usual status quo for most of the next decade. However, if things don’t significantly change, I can’t see any reason it’ll stick around past 2026 on the Big Four, outside of tradition. I’d say the Emmys’ future past 2026 is definitely a cable network at minimum, if not going streaming-only like its Daytime Emmys counterpart.

“Shadow Emmy” by sfxeric is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Flickr / cropped from original)

Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

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