The previous low came in 1990, when a Fox broadcast of the event reached an average audience of a little less than 12.3 million. Last year, a Fox broadcast of the Emmys reached 12,951,000, according to Nielsen.
The low ratings come after a large portion of the awards went to programs broadcast by cable outlets. Indeed, the awards for outstanding actor and actress in a drama series went to the stars of AMC's "Breaking Bad" and FX's "Damages," with HBO's "Entourage" picking up an award for best supporting actor in a comedy series. HBO took home the most awards from the event.
The Emmys may be suffering from one of the dynamics that often governs the ratings success of another awards-show perennial, the Oscars. When the Oscars' nomination slate includes "popcorn" movies that do great box office, the audience tends to swell. When the nomination is made up primarily of smaller films from independent movie studios, the ratings tend to dwindle.
While cable shows such as "Mad Men," "Damages," "The Closer" and others tend to get rave reviews and attract a devoted niche audience, they still don't often bring in the truly mass audiences of broadcast TV. And yet, as audiences continue to fragment, some analysts suggest the day won't be too far off when a far-reaching cable outlet such as Time Warner's TNT can match the audience power of a smaller-performing broadcast network.
"The threat to broadcast's reach advantage is now evident as the largest cable networks are increasing their investment in original programming," wrote Bernstein Research analyst Michael Nathanson in a research note issued Tuesday.
The Emmys reached their biggest audience in 1986, according to incomplete historical data from Nielsen, when an NBC broadcast of the event reached an average of about 35.8 million people.