Do Emmy Voters Like the Same Things We Do? A Look at Emmys and Ratings

Award nominations are a funny thing. The number of award ceremonies celebrating entertainment production has seemingly exploded in recent years, scattering increasingly meaningless trophies across the industry and interrupting your regularly scheduled Sunday night programming. The upshot is a steady stream of red carpet photos for us to peruse at work instead of being productive human beings.

Despite the growth of the award industry, for more than half a century the Big Four awards have remained the Oscars (film), the Grammys (music), the Tonys (stage), and the Primetime Television Emmys (sorry, Daytime Emmys – if you can convince a network to broadcast you again, then you can rejoin the list). Unlike most other awards, which are given by fans or critics or a secretive group of “Hollywood foreign press”, people within each industry vote for the winners of the Big Four awards. These awards, given by peers, remain the most prestigious, no matter how many times a celebs swear that their People’s Choice Awards are the most meaningful because they come from the fans.

While other award nominations are generally greeted amiably, with pleasant congratulations towards the nominees, announcements for the Big Four nominations immediately spawn a deluge of lists of who got “robbed” or “snubbed.” This year’s Primetime Emmy nominations, announced on July 10th, were no different. (You can find an analysis on almost any entertainment site that, unlike us, existed last month, but I’m partial to this one by The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman.) But, as Emmy executive producer Don Mischer pointed out a few weeks ago, the Emmys are not popular choice. So, the question is, how well do the tastes of the great unwashed masses (ie, us) stack up against that of those within the industry?

The answer is a bit more complicated than you may first assume, and part of that is due to the changing nature of how we watch television. The reliability of Nielsen ratings, introduced in 1950 and once considered the gold standard of how many people watched a given program, has tarnished over time. More and more people are watching programming time-shifted or online. In an effort to capture more accurate data, in 2009 Nielsen introduced Live + Same Day, Live +7 (days), and Live +3 ratings. Last month at the Television Critics Association press tour, networks began a concerted push to de-emphasize Live and Live + Same Day ratings in favor of taking a longer view more in line with contemporary viewing habits.

Ratings and industry acclaim used to hew more closely together, especially before cable shows became eligible for the Primetime Emmys. (From 1979 until 1997, cable shows had their own awards program called the Cable ACE Awards.) For example, in 1986-87, the last year in which cable networks were excluded from Emmy contention, all five comedy nominees – The Golden Girls, The Cosby Show, Cheers, Family Ties, and Night Court – were in the top seven rated programs. Out of the five drama nominees, Murder, She Wrote, Moonlighting, and L.A. Law were all in the top 21. In general, viewership and acclaim related strongest when it came to comedy. In the ten year period from 1978 to 1987, 72% of Emmy-nominated comedies were in that year’s Nielsen top 30, while only 42% of dramas were. With cable in the mix and the proliferation of ‘niche’ shows, it’s unlike that the broadcast networks will achieve that type of dominance again, even if they do continue to attract the most live-viewing eyeballs.

Now, in addition to ratings, programs have varying amounts of impact on social media and in fandoms. This is why you hear few people on the Internet bemoaning the absence of, say, CBS’ The Mentalist from Emmy lists, even though on average, 10.5 million more people watch it live than BBC America’s Orphan Black, starring this year’s Queen of Snubs Tatiana Maslany. It’s why HBO’s Game of Thrones can get 19 nods in 2014, the most of any program, and yet people still wonder why it didn’t get more (ahem, Pedro Pascal, ahem). Similarly, CBS’ NCIS, the top rated scripted drama on television with an average weekly Nielsen audience of almost 19.8 million people yet negligible social media buzz, received zero nominations. And for some nominees, like Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, viewership numbers are never released, remaining a corporate secret guarded with a dedication that the NSA must envy, even as the shows set the internet and probably most of your office abuzz.

Buzz is important when the Television Academy is deciding who deserves a nomination. Realistically, even more so than with film, no individual can see all of what television has to offer. For example, this year’s Emmy nomination ballot for performers alone was 245 PAGES. With about five people per page, it’s more of a roll of who’s currently employed on TV than who is truly outstanding. It’s impossible to navigate. Therefore, Television Academy voters rely heavily on what and who is said to be ‘good’, just like we do when we’re deciding what to watch. The louder that conversation, the more likely the show is to cut through the noise. Some buzz comes from sheer ubiquity – which leads to ratings – and some from critical acclaim. That critical acclaim helps best if it can be tied into a familiar property, such as an established star (Kevin Spacey onHouse of Cards), a network with prestige (AMC), or both (True Detective: Matthew McConaughey and HBO). Emmy voters in particular like to stick to the folks they know.

However, media diversification doesn’t make ratings completely irrelevant. The two broadcast comedies that received Best Comedy Series nominations in 2014, CBS’ The Big Bang Theory and ABC’s Modern Family, are respectively the highest and second highest rated half hour comedy series on television. The CW, a low rated network that has a reputation for showing teenage fluff (that’s hogwash – but that’s another post) and whose highest ranked series (Arrow) was 128th last year, unsurprisingly only received two Creative Arts nominations.

The multiple paths to an Emmy nomination make any sort of prognostication about the nominees a mostly futile – and frustrating – affair. But that doesn’t stop us from indulging in speculation before and indignation after the announcements are made, and it’s unlikely we’ll stop anytime soon.

Please go here to see a full list of the 2014 Primetime Emmy nominees.