Emmys: International Viewers Struggle to Recognize This Year's Winners

With the (big) exception of 'Game of Thrones,' the series honored Sunday night are almost unknown worldwide.

Pity the newscasters in Germany, Russia and China reporting on this year's Emmy Awards.

They all know Game of Thrones: HBO's fantasy drama, which cleaned up with 12 Emmys this year, including best drama series, is a global hit. But what about nine-time winner The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story? Or drama acting honorees Tatiana Maslany of Orphan Black and Rami Malek of Mr. Robot? For the average viewer outside North America, the first they'll have heard of them will have been in that clip from Emmy night, accepting their trophies.

The Emmys are not a popularity contest, and the Academy prides itself on honoring the best, not just the highest-rated, TV series. But shifts in the international television industry — including the increased fragmentation through digital channels and the growth in online and streaming services — has meant many of the “best” shows are reaching smaller and smaller global audiences, at least legally.

The People v. O.J. Simpson, for example, aired on only a handful of major networks internationally, including BBC 2 in the UK and Australia's Network Ten. In most territories, it went out on tiny digital networks or online. Many won't get a chance to see the show until it turns up in their territory on Netflix sometime in 2017. Even where it got a solid network bow, O.J. wasn't a huge draw. On BBC 2, the show drew around 1.7 million overnight viewers, rising to about 2.5 million including online and time-shifted viewing. Solid, but not exceptional for one of Britain's leading channels. On Network Ten, People v. O.J. Simpson drew Live +7 ratings of up to 315,000. Good, not huge.

And it's much worse for the likes of Mr. Robot and Orphan Black, which, in most countries, are available exclusively on streaming platforms or premium pay channels. Mr. Robot is exclusive to Amazon in multiple territories, while Netflix has Orphan Black in several countries, including the U.K. and Germany (though in Germany the show also draws negligible ratings on digital niche network ZDFNeo).

Netflix and Amazon don't publish their viewership figures, but their reach in individual international territories is still small compared to that in the U.S. A Netflix show in the U.K. has the potential of reaching around 5 million people (their British subscriber base, according to a recent report). Compare that with 60 million Brits who can tune in to a series airing on the BBC, ITV or Channel 4.

There are regional blips: Mr. Robot is big in Sweden, where the show airs on public network SVT. Orphan Black pulls decent numbers in Canada on the Space network (the show is shot, and unusually, also set in Toronto). But in most countries, these series are beyond niche. The critics might love them (and, worldwide, most of them do) but water cooler TV this ain't.

Perhaps that's not surprising, given that many of last night's Emmy champs are ratings-challenged even in their home market. The People v. O.J. Simpson was a hit for FX, but season 2 of Mr. Robot drew an average of just 732,000 viewers for USA Network. Orphan Black averaged just 255,000 viewers an episode for season 4 on BBC America. With numbers like those, it's understandable that buyers from the big international networks stay away.

The Emmys are certain to raise the global profile of these shows but given the difficulty of finding them don't be surprised if the main impact is a spike in illegal torrents.