On the Eve of a New Broadcast Season, Emmys Ratings Drop to a Record Low

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HBO's 'Game of Thrones' wins Best Drama at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards.
HBO's 'Game of Thrones' wins Best Drama at the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards.  Credit: ABC/Image Group LA
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As broadcasters and their big-tent hits continue to get elbowed out of a shot at Emmys glory by niche offerings from the cable networks and streaming services, ratings for TV's annual celebration of itself are showing no signs of recovery.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, ABC's Sunday night presentation of the 68th Primetime Emmy Awards marked an all-time nadir for the ceremony, averaging 11.3 million viewers and a 2.8 rating among adults 18-49. While this marked a mere 5% decline versus the 11.9 million viewers Fox drew a year ago, the drop in the advertiser-coveted demo was much more steep -- down 22% compared with a 3.6.

The 2.8 rating translates to 3.59 million viewers, which means that people in the target demo accounted for a little less than one-third, or 32%, of the total Emmys audience. Last year, adults 18-49 comprised 38% of Fox's Emmys deliveries.

Meanwhile, everyone's favorite demographic scapegoat also appears to have been a factor in the Emmys' year-to-year declines, as millennial viewers were down 35%.

While the Emmys faced stiff competition in NBC's "Sunday Night Football" -- according to fast national data, the Packers-Vikings game averaged 20.5 million viewers and a 7.4 in the 18-49 demo, which was down 14% versus the year-ago preliminaries (the early NFL numbers will be adjusted up in the final live-same-day reckoning) -- football is a constant adversary whenever ABC, CBS or Fox air the Emmys. (When NBC last had its turn at bat, it aired the 66th Emmys on August 25, a sleepy pre-Labor Day Monday. The show averaged 15.6 million viewers and a 4.2 in the demo.)

The Jimmy Kimmel-hosted Emmys also went up against the premiere of the three-part CBS special "The Case Of: JonBenét Ramsey," which drew 10.3 million viewers leading out of "60 Minutes."

Final numbers for the NFL and other non-ABC programming will be available Tuesday morning. ABC put out a rush order with Nielsen for an early jump on the Emmys' live-same-day data.

If the Emmys ratings reflect the ongoing decline of linear TV ratings, there's also an argument to be made for correlating diminishing ratings with the rather limited reach of the shows that win the awards. In the absence of nominees that regularly deliver a massive audience -- one of only a handful of network shows to be nominated for an award, ABC's "Modern Family" was easily the highest-rated series up for consideration Sunday night; it lost to HBO's "Veep," which delivers an audience that's about one-eighth the size of its own -- it stands to reason that the number of viewers who turn up to cheer on the Emmy noms is correspondingly smaller.

None of which is to say that the excellent shows that do win aren't worthy of your consideration, rather, this is merely to suggest that the audience fragmentation that goes hand in glove with the sheer number of options available to viewers is reflected in the niche appeal of the shows that win hardware and in the Emmys ratings themselves. (We see much the same dynamic when the Academy Awards Best Picture nominees are crowded with smaller, independent titles. When "No Country for Old Men," which stands as the third lowest-grossing Oscars winner, took Best Picture in 2008, the Academy Award put up their lowest ratings to date.)

By now, broadcasters should be used to getting shut out of the winner's circle, as the last time a network series was so much as nominated for Best Drama was in 2011, when CBS's "The Good Wife" lost to AMC's "Mad Men." Fox's "24" is the last network drama to bringing home the spiky statuette, taking top honors all the way back in 2006.

According to iSpot.tv data, some 61 brands bought inventory in the Emmys, of which some of the more visible were Apple, Audi, Samsung, the AARP and Invokana, a pharmaceutical used in the treatment of Type 2 Diabetes. As a class, pharma was the most prominent category, accounting for 15% of ABC's overall inventory, edging automobiles (13%) and mobile devices (12%).

ABC used the reach afforded by the Emmys as a means to promote its fall 2016 primetime lineup, airing 34 promos for new and returning shows over the course of the broadcast. The upcoming Minnie Driver comedy "Speechless" got the most love from the home network, as ABC aired six promos to hype up its Sept. 21 premiere, while Kiefer Sutherland's return to the tube on the same night in the Beltway thriller "Designated Survivor" was the subject of four promos. The Katy Mixon sitcom "American Housewife" (Oct. 11) was teased twice, while new dramas "Notorious" (Sept. 22) and "Conviction" (Oct. 3) received one in-house spot a piece.