October 9, 2009
The Thing about The Emmys that Even NPH Coudn't Save

This year's Emmy Awards opened with the divine Neil Patrick Harris (NPH) singing a song that begs viewers to "put down the remote" and watch the ceremony--and commercials--live, without interruptions of any kind. You can watch the video of NPH's song below or read the lyrics.

As the song moves on, it warns viewers to stay away from all the things that have historically worried television broadcasters: remote controls, cable, cell phones, computers. The song was funny and topical, but it revealed what most of us have known for a while: TV networks are very aware of the threats to their business model, but they haven't figured out many viable alternatives.

Awards shows like the Emmys and the Oscars are event television in its purest form: they're live telecasts that people watch for the pomp and ceremony rather than for the information presented. If you only care about the awards, you can find a synopsis online the second after the last award is given out. Watching the Emmys has very little to do with who wins, but it's no fun to watch the show after you already know who wins. The whole fun of watching is about the liveness--about finding out in real time. All those threats that NPH mentioned--the proliferation of cable channels, watching online, time-shifting--have all made true event TV increasingly rare. NPH didn't have to tell people to put down the remote because chances are anyone watching the Emmys was already planning on watching it live anyway.

CBS would have been wise to capitalize on the fact that with the Emmys they had an increasingly rare commodity--an audience truly committed to watching something live. The Emmys is an event on television, but it's also an event on the Internet. People like to watch these events in a community. For an example of this, we need to look no farther than President Obama's Inauguration. The Inauguration, like the Emmys but with more clout, is an Event. CNN streamed the ceremony online with a live Facebook feed. Viewers could update their statuses in real-time to talk to friends and strangers about the Inauguration. The CNN/Facebook partnership was extremely successful.

Online streaming and community features like Facebook integration would be a boon to dwindling award show audience numbers. This year's audience was 1 million larger than last year's record low, but it was still down 3 million from 2006.

Live Internet content about the show could have driven more people to the telecast. People like to have Emmy viewing parties. CBS should have given us some tools to communicate with other fans beyond ad hoc Twitter hashtags. NPH's song claimed that the Internet was making people not pay attention to the Emmy telecast, but in fact, many people were using the Internet to follow along as they watched. They were just doing it in places where CBS couldn't monetize them: the TV Guide Channel streamed their pre-show with Facebook integration like the CNN Obama Inauguration; Twitter was abuzz with Emmy talk; and several entertainment blogs ran live-blogs during the show. These were all missed opportunities for CBS to engage Emmy fans.

Instead of writing a clever song with lyrics like "don't jump online," and "Turn off that phone," CBS should have encouraged people to interact with the Emmy ceremony online and on their phones. For the record, though, CBS has a chance to redeem itself in the near future. They're looking to stream another big TV event--the Super Bowl. I'll be interested to see how that turns out, even if it means watching football.