Emmys Telecast Under the Gun to Increase Ratings

Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC
Michael Che and Colin Jost

Television's premier awards show can't seem to capture its golden-age magic, and a new eight-year broadcast pact could freeze fees if viewership doesn't rebound.

When Michael Che and Colin Jost take the Microsoft Theater stage Sept. 17, their Emmy hosting gig will come with the usual pressures — for viewers, social media metrics and cool points. But their ratings on NBC won't affect the latest rights agreement between the TV Academy and the Big Four networks, an eight-year deal that kicks off with the 2019 show and is seen by many as make-or-break for the awards' broadcast future.

The count of U.S. scripted series will top 500 in 2018. But interest in TV's top honors, as with many awards shows, is slipping. The past three Emmy telecasts averaged 11.5 million viewers, easily ranking as the least watched of TV's big awards shows. "Everyone was really motivated to get this deal done," says one Big Four exec. "Then some flies got in the ointment and it screeched to a halt."

The length of the deal proved the biggest sticking point. The TV Academy was eager for eight years, while ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC pushed for just four. The resolution was a compromise: If the first four Emmys of the new deal don't drop further in the ratings, the Academy's licensing fee will go up for 2023-26. If the show continues to lose steam, the networks will pay the same amount for those second four years. How to goose those ratings is still up for debate. Many bemoan staid production, while even more (especially on the network side) are said to be pushing to shuffle some of the less sexy categories (i.e., writing and directing) to the two untelevised Creative Arts shows. "The Academy feels it is important that all of our nominees and winners get the respect and recognition they deserve," says TV Academy chairman and CEO Hayma Washington. "Part of that respect and recognition comes from delivering the awards in an entertaining and engaging format. That's always a balance."

Talks with the guilds, typically done before the telecast pact, have been postponed until after the 2018 show. Adds one source close to the matter: "We are trying to figure out the telecast changes question. It's the same conversations that the Oscars are having."

But don't look for the introduction of a "popular" category, as the Motion Picture Academy recently teased for its own 2019 show — then postponed amid widespread criticism and confusion over parameters. At a gala where the favorite is Game of Thrones, which lured more than 30 million viewers per episode to its most recent season, such a move is considered gratuitous, even silly. "Nobody bats an eye or cries 'snub' when a popular show doesn't get nominated because there are just so many popular shows," says another exec. "The Emmys are more like a sport at this point."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.