Julia Louis-Dreyfus meant it as a joke when she used her brief time on the Emmy stage last Sunday to call this ”the last official year of network broadcast television.” But as they say: It’s funny because it’s true. Other than Two and a Half Men‘s Jon Cryer and 24‘s Cherry Jones, there weren’t any cachet-category wins for the networks’ huge hits. (Lost, The Office, and 30 Rock are great, of course, but they don’t attract anywhere near the audience of, say, House or Grey’s Anatomy — two of the night’s losers.) Even The Amazing Race, which won its seventh consecutive Emmy, is one of the lesser-watched of the reality-show nominees. And many of the night’s winners like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Damages, and United States of Tara have devoted, but relatively small, followings on cable. None of this seemed lost on Tina Fey either, who accepted 30 Rock‘s third consecutive Emmy for best comedy by thanking NBC for keeping her low-rated show on despite the fact that ”we are so much more expensive than a talk show.” (Hello, Jay Leno!)
All joking aside, there’s an ever-widening gap between the shows people actually watch and the shows Emmy chooses to honor. (The TV Academy fetes fewer fan favorites than any other awards show, from the Grammys to the Golden Globes. Even the Oscars usually tap a few people-pleasers, like Heath Ledger and Slumdog Millionaire this year.) Perhaps that’s unavoidable, given that cable — regardless of its limited audience — will always have more freedom to cultivate the edgier, moodier fare beloved by awards-show voters.
Naturally, the after-parties were brimming with champagne-sipping network insiders who grumbled about the ceremony becoming this decade’s version of the CableACE Awards. Okay, not everybody was ready to sound the death knell on TV’s big night: ”I did think it was the best Emmy show that I had ever participated in,” Lost‘s supporting actor Michael Emerson told EW. Then again, he would say that. He won.
But it also can’t be overlooked that host Neil Patrick Harris managed to make the kudofest, well, watchable. The amiable costar of CBS’ How I Met Your Mother killed with his opening number and crisp one-liners, helping the three-hour show attract a million more viewers than last year (13.5 million) and earn loads of positive reviews. Even Jeff Probst (best reality-show host) and Jon Stewart (best variety) took time out from their acceptance speeches to give Harris some verbal high fives. ”That was a lovely treat,” Harris, who also hosted the most recent Tony Awards to higher ratings, told EW afterward. ”I was very appreciative.” Great. Now, about the Oscars…
— additional reporting by Jeff Jensen and Whitney Pastorek