Were The TV Series Nominated for Emmy Awards “Popular”?

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For a few years now, I’ve tracked the Academy Awards’ Best Picture nominees to determine if they were “popular”. Is this a vitally important topic to the business of entertainment? 

Yes and no. 

No, because, in general, awards don’t determine if you have a good business strategy. It only proves that you might have a good strategy for winning awards or getting awards nominations. And even stacking up nominations doesn’t really prove that you have good strategy, because then we’d have to factor in volume of spend and number of shows produced. Folks lose sight of this in our industry all the time.

But, as I wrote in the Ankler last week, awards ratings are still big business! They drive lots of viewers in one night. More than any scripted streaming or pay cable series on its own—except for maybe Stranger Things or House of the Dragon—can demand on its own. 

As you probably know by now, the live Emmy ratings were down from last year. Down a lot. So it’s worth pondering if the Emmys are headed down the same mistaken road as the Oscars, meaning nominating increasingly obscure TV series as opposed to genuinely popular ones. As I’ve noted for a few years, the Oscars increasingly box out genuinely popular blockbusters, and while I can’t “prove” this has hurt the ratings, it looks like it:

Why would I think the Emmys are making the same mistake? Because broadcast TV shows have essentially been left out from the nominations recently. Before this year, only This Is Us got nominated in the drama category. This year, the most popular show on cable—Yellowstone—didn’t sniff a nomination.

So how popular are the TV series nominated for Emmys? Not to keep you in suspense but…

– The shows nominated for best drama were mostly popular and really popular in some cases!

– The Comedy and Competition Reality categories have fewer popular shows.

– But the limited series category is far and away the least popular.

Today, I’ll explain how I came to that conclusion, along with some random thoughts on the Emmy awards. But first a digression into data.

(Today’s article is free for all subscribers. If you’d like to support my writing, consider a paid subscription. Since this issue is free, if you’d like to forward it around, feel free!)

Data Digression

One reason I’ve never done an analysis on the Emmys is because we don’t have “one source of truth” for all the shows. Before 2019, we had box office for almost all the films that got nominated for an Oscar, and since then we’ve gotten streaming data for all the series released straight-to-streaming. 

With TV shows, though, for a while (2013-March 2020) we had no data on streaming series. Even now we don’t have great data on catch-up viewing on pay cable TV series. Plus, most broadcast, cable and pay cable series also have digital viewing (via Hulu, HBO Max and other streamers), but the owners of those shows only provide data points selectively. (Or not at all. For example, I’d kill to see the viewership data for Hulu’s “day-after-air” TV, since most of those series aren’t eligible for Nielsen’s weekly streaming charts.) 

As such, even comparing broadcast to cable to pay cable to streaming doesn’t work because the data isn’t “apples-to-apples”.

All that said, I recently started building out (very preliminarily) some linear ratings data sets for my “Who Is The American Viewer?” series. Combined with all the streaming ratings, I think I can tentatively make some calls. But with some caveats:

– I won’t cover every single category. In fact, I’ll only do the four biggest, drama, comedy, reality and limited-series. 

– I’m not covering individual awards like writing, directing and acting. Only show level awards.

– I’ll use actual numbers when I have them, but sometimes I’ll have to use my best judgement call.

– I don’t have time to dig into historical data, so this analysis is limited to 2021 to 2022 TV series.

– Feel free to disagree with my judgement on whether something is “popular”. I tried to pull as many data sources as I could, but this is still a pretty “back of the envelope” analysis.

With those caveats out of the way, let’s dig in.

Were the Emmy Nominated Shows Popular?

To determine if something is “popular”, I’m going to use two criteria. First, is it in the top ten percent of viewership in its release style, meaning broadcast, cable and streaming? In other words, is it one of the most popular things on broadcast, cable or streaming by total hours viewed? However, broadcast will get a slightly larger range (25%) because its shows are generally more popular than streaming-only shows. (Lowly rated broadcast shows can have as many viewers live per episode as some streaming or pay cable shows.)

Second, to account for smaller platforms, if a show is a streamerl’s “most popular” show, that will still count as popular. (Hulu and Apple TV+ can thank me later.)

Here are dramas:

That’s five genuinely popular shows, two “maybes” and two “no”. I know, some folks will think Succession is popular, but c’mon: it did one-fourth the ratings of Euphoria by HBO’s own metrics. At best, I can call it “maybe”. Severance is the toughest call. We know even fewer people watched it than Succession, simply because Apple TV+ is tiny, but the data indicates it’s probably Apple TV+’s second most popular show, and it made the TV Time rankings for 5 weeks. As for Yellowjackets, while it’s buzzy, with only 333K live viewers and the fewest IMDb reviews (44K) among dramas, it probably isn’t popular. (For all pay cable live viewer numbers, I’m using the number reported on their Wikipedia page.)

As for comedies:

Not as popular as you would have guessed, is it? With the caveat that many of these are “half-hour” series, so not as much material to watch when comparing total hours, sitcoms just generally aren’t as popular as they once were. Abbott Elementary was the third most popular broadcast sitcom and it had 3 million folks watching each episode, and that’s low compared to some procedurals, though that is high compared to pay cable, as Barry only had 300K or so live viewers each week. So ten times as many people watched Abbot Elementary as Barry! Meanwhile, Only Murders in the Building and Ted Lasso both probably had much smaller audiences, but were the most popular shows on their streamers, so they get the “popular” label too.

As for the “no’s” and “maybes”, Curb Your Enthusiasm is in its 11th season, so it clearly has a devoted audience, but has smaller ratings than Succession. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel was a tough call, but it’s not even Prime Video’s fifth biggest show and was only the 8th largest season four in my data set through 8 weeks of viewing. Hacks was a “dog not barking” and while I personally like What We Do In the Shadows—just my type of comedy—it didn’t make either top 100 shows on broadcast and cable in 2021.

(To echo my “Who Is The American Viewer” series, and to reveal my biases, I loved Barry and enjoy What We Do in The Shadows, and I know a few people watching those series, but that doesn’t mean they resonate with audiences at large.)

Okay, on to limited series. This is really the most “Oscar”-esque category of shows that most customers haven’t heard of:

It’s also the category that Hulu will point to to demonstrate their success this year, and I’ll just point out that of their three shows, they combined for 5 weeks on the Nielsen charts, which is barely anything. The White Lotus, while buzzy in entertainment circles, just didn’t resonate either. Only Inventing Annaanother Shondaland hit—qualifies. I would add, this category might have the largest volume of misses too, when you add in all the limited series made by all the streamers.

As for Competition Reality, most of the coverage ignores this category because, well, it’s reality. But it’s where a lot of eyeballs end up. Two of the shows are big ratings draws:

Top Chef made the top 100 series for viewers 18-49, so it just squeaked onto this list. Meanwhile, Lizzo’s Watch Out for the Big Grrrls and Nailed it were both very small. RuPaul’s Drag Race probably is popular, but it missed the Nielsen Top 100 charts in 2021, though it has made it in past seasons. It also has very elite IMDb scores for a reality series.

If you add it all up, here’s how the categories compare:

Other Data Looks

Again, I don’t have one source of data to compare all these different series to each other, but still wanted to provide a few numerical looks. First, IMDb shows a good spread on the types of series.

Yeah, in this case the extreme success of Stranger Things makes this a little hard to read. Here’s how it looks without that giant show included:

One other note: reality series just tend not to have a lot of ratings, so I would try to compare reality series to each other, not to top dramas.

Since I use streaming ratings every week, let’s start there. Heres’s the top twenty series since 2021, with this year’s Emmy nominees included, even if they missed the rankings:

(This is viewership in the first 8 weeks except for Ted Lasso, which was its 8-week run from last fall.)

We could also run a similar analysis of linear TV ratings. Here are the Emmy nominated shows by total viewers on broadcast, cable and pay cable:

You may notice HBO and Showtime series aren’t included. They weren’t included in the broadcast and cable rankings, so here’s the live viewership of the linear data I could find for Emmy nominated series.

I considered looking at Samba TV, but they don’t release regular ratings, only shows that tend to be popular. They also use multiple days, which complicates things. I also considered pulling all of HBO’s self-reported data points and…well I did pull that data. But I’m saving it for Friday’s Streaming Ratings Report House of the Dragon analysis. Stay tuned!

Other Thoughts

– I do believe that “winning” an Emmy will help boost a TV series’ awareness in the long run. It allows a channel or streamer to tout it as an “Emmy winner” and I’ve seen data that wins do boost ratings. (This happened with Coda and Parasite for example, when they won their respective Oscars.) The caveat is that “nominees” don’t see nearly the same bump. (To continue the Oscar analogy, Drive My Car did NOT get a bump this year.) Meaning if you’re justifying your FYC spending for the bump one series gets, that’s feels like a crap shoot. Specifically rolling the dice hoping to hit snake eyes when you should just bet the Pass Line.

– One reason why nominations don’t help is the sheer volume of TV series nominated for an Emmy. There used to be five nominees per category, but that’s up to eight. I mean, we had 27 nominees just in the main TV series categories, and that’s not counting all the other individual award categories. With so many shows with the “Emmy nominated” label, I’m not sure customers notice.

– And who knows how many shows are “aspiring” to win awards. Just read my series on “The Biggest Flops, Misses and Dud in TV So Far in 2022” for an initial list, as many of the DNBs were “prestige”.

– If you want to snag a drama nomination, your show probably needs to be popular, since five of the eight series were popular. That’s the added difficulty of striving for an Emmy nomination in a landscape this crowded: in addition to being good, your show also needs to be popular.

– In hindsight, the deluge of “prestige” TV series in May really hurt some of the aspiring-for-Emmy-nomination contenders. If it matters if your show is popular—and it did/does—releasing in a really crowded month doesn’t make a lot of sense. Squid Game came out in September, Succession came out in October, Yellow Jackets came out in November, Euphoria came out in January, and Severance came out in February.

– If your company does want an Emmy nomination, look at the “variety” category, which only had two nominees. If you want to “moneyball” the Emmy awards, that’s the category I’d try to compete in. 

– The Emmy ratings went down, and I’ll admit that I thought, looking at these shows being generally popular, the ratings could have gone up. (I forgot they were going up against Monday Night Football. I’d switch to a Tuesday premiere, Emmy committee!) Or nominate more broadcast series, or just Yellowstone!

– For fun, I tried to rank the Emmy nominated series for how I would “draft” them in order of popularity. The shows I think would drive the most viewership on my streamer. Here’s what I came up with and it also shows how big drama series were:

– One question I have in my head is whether I’d rather have the shows nominated for Emmys or the most popular shows that weren’t nominated. Like if I were forced to make a decision. Here’s a rough outline of that:

It’s actually a bit tougher than I would have guessed. But still you could add all of the MCU series, Prime Video’s The Wheel of Time and a few other Netflix streaming titles to the “not nominated” list. The difference between the Emmys and the Oscars, though, is that it’s at least a debate. For the Academy Awards, the top films are massively more popular than the nominated list.

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.


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