The Emmy Ratings Conundrum: Everyone’s Talking, Nobody’s Watching
Despite NBC’s best efforts, the Emmys flopped this year, pulling in all-time low ratings down a whopping 24% from last year’s telecast. Per Variety, TV’s biggest night pulled in just 5.9 million viewers, proving to be no match for the Seattle Seahawks versus the Denver Broncos. Meanwhile Monday Night Football had its most-watched game since 2009, with 20 million total viewers.
All awards shows, Emmys included, have been plagued by a case of declining ratings for some time now. In 2020, a mostly virtual pandemic-era Emmys brought in then record-low ratings of 6.4 million on ABC, pulling a 1.3 in the ratings demo. In 2021, there was a bit of a rebound with 7.9 million viewers, but they’re back in the basement this year, even as other major awards shows that aired this year—the Oscars and the Tonys—saw a rebound, with the Oscars surging 60% in 2022.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Saturday Night Live veteran Kenan Thompson took on the unpopular job of emcee, telling jokes at Netflix and HBO’s expense, and performing in a massive, bizarre song and dance number more fitting for the Tonys than the Emmys. There were multiple television reunions, from the living cast of The Brady Bunch, Law and Order: SVU’s beloved detective duo Elliot and Olivia, a.k.a. Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, and even a surprise appearance from Kel Mitchell of Kenan & Kel fame (sadly, no orange soda to be found). While some of these fared better than others, (the copaganda? Not so great!), it was clear a legitimate effort was being made to inject the Emmys with a sense of occasion. Heck, Jimmy Kimmel almost died twice for the telecast: at the ceremony, when the tip from a dancer’s spear came hurtling toward him in the audience (thank goodness for Andrew Garfield), and again, online, when the internet came for him for pulling focus from Quinta Brunson’s acceptance speech by lying on the floor beneath her. (On Wednesday, Kimmel apologized to Brunson on Jimmy Kimmel Live! for his “dumb comedy bit.”)
And yet, as Vanity Fair’s David Canfield noted in his Emmys postmortem, none of this necessarily translated into compelling, must-watch television. “The show as a whole felt like such a downer,” he wrote.
In the pressroom and at the Emmy after-parties, however, the energy and excitement were much higher, and the effort to deliver a grade-A show was more palpable. But the effort seemed to have been put in all the wrong places, leaning into the big opening number and presenter bits, at the expense of letting Emmy winners like Jennifer Coolidge finish their speeches. In rare moments, the telecast struck gold, like when Sheryl Lee Ralph sang her acceptance speech for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy for Abbott Elementary. But apparently, the chance of catching one moment of grandeur isn’t enough to get eyeballs on the telecast, especially when you can find that moment online mere minutes after it happened.
The Emmys seem to have a content problem, with more television than ever available to the masses via streaming, yet year after year continuing to reward a relatively small—and often overwhelmingly white—handful of shows (this year it was The White Lotus, Ted Lasso, and Succession). But given the internet uproar re: Kimmel’s “dead body” stunt and the heaps of praise showered on Ralph’s speech, both of which are still being discussed days later even by those who didn’t tune in to the telecast, it’s clear that there is interest in the proceedings. Converting that interest into actual viewers is just a feat that the Emmys have yet to master. “The Emmys are always in some state of crisis,” writes Canfield. “This year, they barely tried to hide it.”
Maybe—probably!—there’s a bigger, structural issue at play. Or maybe the Emmys just had a case of the Mondays.