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Do the Emmys matter?

Our answer: a heavily qualified yes.

68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Show
Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek addresses the crowd after winning the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Do the Emmys matter?

It’s a question TV fans ask a lot, since the awards, after all, can seem to actively avoid honoring the best television out there, in favor of giving out dozens of prizes to the same-old, same-old. But it’s also a question TV fans have been asking for years, and it’s one the Emmys have slowly but surely been chipping away at over the past several decades.

If you ask me, I’d say the Emmys matter in the sense that they’re probably the best major TV award, because they’re less susceptible to weird fads than other awards, even though that characteristic can make them infuriating. (Modern Family won the comedy series prize five times in a row, even though it decidedly didn’t deserve at least some of those trophies.)

But it’s simultaneously easy and difficult to quantify how much the Emmys matter within the industry. Certainly nobody working in television would sniff at an Emmy if they won one, but it’s pretty rare for the Emmys to provide a series with a massive ratings boost in the modern era. (In the 1970s, a low-rated show named All in the Family vaulted to No. 1 in the ratings, in part due to Emmy attention. That would never happen today.)

Yet in our Peak TV world, "buzz" matters more than ever. And for as many places as shows can get buzz now, there are still few sources better than an Emmy.

Within the TV industry, winning an Emmy is a good way to get viewers to sample your show — though less so than it used to be

Mad Men
Mad Men managed to grow its audience slowly over time, in part thanks to Emmy buzz.

Here’s a good recent example: Mad Men. That show occasionally drew fewer than 1 million viewers in its first season — at a time when pulling in that small of an audience was largely reserved for instant cancellations and obscure cable shows.

But because AMC was new to the scripted drama game — and because TV critics’ praise for the show was so overwhelmingly positive — the network renewed it for a second season, then pushed its chips onto a major awards campaign for the series. And Mad Men won a number of major Emmys for that first season, including Drama Series.

Season two mostly finished airing before the show won any Emmys, but it was on TV during the period when season one was garnering nominations and landing in critics’ "should win" articles. And while season two’s ratings weren’t dramatically better, they did grow to more than 2 million viewers for the premiere.

AMC had managed to get fans of quality television to at least sample the show, and over the next several years, as Mad Men won more Emmys, it grew into a modest hit for the network, especially as streaming and video on-demand platforms became better known.

To be sure, the Emmys are almost certainly not the only reason Mad Men managed to find enough of an audience to run seven seasons. Maybe some people checked out the show thanks to its glowing reviews. Maybe AMC’s advertising for the show was just that good, or the actors being on every magazine cover around influenced viewers’ decisions.

But the Emmys also didn’t hurt the show, and they gave AMC something it could slap on DVD cases and advertisements for Mad Men, something a little weightier than a brag about the Golden Globes (where TV has always felt a bit like an afterthought).

The Emmys have had similar effects in recent years for Homeland and Modern Family (the latter of which was already a hit but enjoyed a nice boost after winning its first major prize). There’s a reason the Emmys typically air on the Sunday before the fall TV season officially begins: The winners will hopefully enjoy a ratings boost from curiosity seekers.

But a ratings boost also doesn’t always materialize

Arrested Development
Arrested Development struggled to capitalize on its Emmy wins.

For a good case in point, consider Arrested Development. After the series won a Comedy Series Emmy for its first season, fans had high hopes that the show, beleaguered when it came to ratings, might develop enough of an audience to stay on the air for several years.

Fox had even given the series a better time slot, sandwiched between The Simpsons and Family Guy, though it had done so before the series won the Emmy. (Part of the Arrested Development myth is that Fox mistreated it, but the network mostly did right by the series.) It seemed as if this would be the show’s moment.

It didn’t work. Though Arrested Development’s ratings improved modestly from the season one finale, they were far below what they had been for the already low-rated season one premiere and the handful of episodes that followed. And in the weeks to come, those ratings eroded further.

The Emmys can provide buzz in the moment, and they still provide an occasional ratings boost. But networks also can’t count on that ratings boost like they usually could in the ’70s and ’80s. And as streaming services that don’t really care about ratings start to crowd the categories, it can increasingly seem like all an Emmy is good for is buzz.

The great paradox, then, is that as buzz has grown in stature as currency within the industry, TV fans pay more attention to the Emmys than ever — and often deride them for crimes they’re not really guilty of.

The Emmys have gotten much better in recent years

The Handmaid’s Tale
Would The Handmaid’s Tale have been an Emmy favorite 10 years ago? Probably not.

I’m not a huge fan of the Emmys’ new voting system, which I think has the propensity to over-reward popular shows rather than the best shows, especially if they’re on HBO or another network that boasts lots of voters within the TV Academy.

But to compare the Emmys now to the Emmys in, say, 1996 is a night-and-day difference. At that time, the awards struggled to recognize any shows that didn’t air on a broadcast network, and landmark series like Roseanne and The X-Files could earn major nominations but were often treated as an afterthought.

And if your show didn’t have big ratings like those two? It was unlikely to get any recognition, even in a less crowded TV landscape. (Fans of literally every WB series — from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Gilmore Girls — know what I’m talking about.)

These days, the Emmys get it right more often than they get it wrong, especially at the nominations stage. Would I rather that Parks and Recreation or Louie or Girls or something had won some of those Comedy Series prizes that ultimately went to Modern Family? Sure. But the Academy still recognized those other shows by nominating them. Even just 10 years ago, they would have been overlooked.

And the Emmys have also displayed a refreshing willingness to avoid flash-in-the-pan phenomena, which they will often nominate but hold at arm’s length. That sets them apart — especially from the Golden Globes, which sometimes seem to nominate TV shows based entirely on which ones are making the front covers of magazines in the supermarket checkout aisle.

For example, the Emmys over-embraced Modern Family, certainly, but they always seemed a little skeptical of Glee in the major categories (outside of Jane Lynch’s performance) — and I think that’s largely defensible.

It’s also just impossible for any awards body’s taste to line up perfectly with the individual tastes of particular viewers — especially in comedy, where what makes any one person laugh will vary wildly from viewer to viewer.

Obviously, we all know this, but the Peak TV era has made it all the more clear. Fans of You’re the Worst or BoJack Horseman or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend might feel let down by the paucity of nominations for their shows — but the fact that there are so many shows on television speaks to how hard it is to break into the conversation anyway. And even in spite of that, the 2017 Outstanding Drama Series category features five first-time nominees, a new Emmy record. The Emmys have improved at recognizing newer shows.

And the Emmys are getting much better at recognizing the genuine best shows on TV — even if it often takes them a while to do so (as with The Americans, which took four seasons before it broke through in 2016). The awards were created to reward a medium with four networks — ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS’s various forerunners — and they’ve had trouble evolving to reflect our Peak TV universe. But increasingly, in recent years, they’re figuring it out.

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