Don’t Get Drunk on Emmys Schadenfreude

When the news came out that the ratings for the Emmy Awards were probably an all-time low, there was the predictable schadenfreude from conservatives over the seeming failure of yet another politicized Hollywood awards show.  But there’s good reason for the Right to not drink too deeply from that cup of confirmation bias.

The Emmys, like other awards, is essentially an industry trade show.  The Emmys show, like other awards telecasts, is essentially a marketing exercise.  Quite apart from politics, the problem all such shows face is that they increasingly represent an attempt to mass market niche products.

The information revolution technology — satellite, cable, internet — that provides an explosion of choices for audiences has fundamentally fragmented and reshaped media consumption habits.  As a corollary, this revolution necessarily reshapes the the calculations of media producers.  As I’ve written about ESPN, whose crown jewels remain generally mass-market offerings, media companies are forced to chase a broader, younger and more diverse audience, and to do so on the budgets afforded by intense competition within a glut of content.

How do media producers gain attention in the attention economy?  Sheer quality helps.  The deep pockets of companies trying to grab as much of the new real estate as possible help (see, e.g., Netflix, Amazon).  But what also helps is controversy, and that often means politics.  And given the politics of most of Hollywood, it’s more likely to be progressive politics.

As much as my fellow conservatives may not want to admit it, those choices aren’t necessarily crazy in a media environment where audience size expectations are so much lower (or, in the case of some streaming services, of much less relevance in general).

That said, it seems to me there’s a niche to be filled with counter-programming, though Hollywood may lack the talent base for it. (I’ve long thought that people like the Kochs and Mercers should be investing in film school programs and scholarships.)

I would also note that Fox News Channel is generally the biggest thing on cable in part because it is counter-programming.  On the third hand, I have also noted that (contra conservative gloating) CNN is generally doing better than it has in many years, and MSNBC’s ratings have skyrocketed in the Trump era.

But I digress, a little.

The fact is that the overwhelming majority of people who have decided to avoid Hollywood awards shows because of politics did so years ago.  The tune-out factor may increase on the margins, which is interesting, but probably not significant in this media environment.  If the point is to promote The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, or John Oliver on HBO, they already know that their target demo isn’t Trump supporters.

So politics in the aggregate likely affects the ratings of awards shows — and other programs, though not to the extent conservatives like to believe.  Assigning too much import to the political factor only distorts conservative perceptions of the so-called culture war and inclines them to believe they’re winning more than they are.

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