LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The 59th annual Primetime Emmys and its farewell salute to “The Sopranos” was a ratings dud, averaging just over 13 million viewers, the second-lowest number on record for the awards, Nielsen Media Research reported on Monday.
The Fox network’s live, three-hour broadcast of TV’s highest honors on Sunday night averaged nearly 19 percent fewer viewers than tuned in last year, 16.1 million, when NBC carried the show and the Fox espionage thriller “24” was a big winner.
The smallest Emmy audience on record was for the 1990 telecast, also carried by Fox, averaging 12.3 million viewers. The 2004 show on ABC ranks third-lowest, with 13.8 million.
Sunday’s Emmy show also posted record low ratings for viewers aged 18 to 49, the audience demographic most prized by advertisers in prime time.
“These are not stellar numbers,” a Fox spokesman said.
One apparent factor was formidable competition from NBC’s new weekly “Sunday Night Football” broadcast, which aired opposite the Emmys in the eastern and central U.S. time zones that account for 75 percent of the TV audience.
Preliminary estimates for the football game put its viewership slightly higher than that of the Emmys.
As lackluster as the show’s Nielsen numbers were, it was not for lack of trying on the part of Emmy organizers.
Seeking to give the telecast a fresh look and format, producers resorted to a number of gimmicks, including a first-of-its-kind presentation on a set designed as a theater in the round. Cast members of the 10 shows nominated for best drama and best comedy were all seated in groups with their respective co-stars.
“American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest served as the nominal emcee of the Emmys, an assignment many questioned because he is known mostly as a ubiquitous TV personality with no particular talents as a stand-up comic or singer.
Seacrest did not try to sing and ended up handing off most of the evening’s comedic heavy lifting to bigger names, including Ray Romano and Ellen DeGeneres, and some critics found Seacrest himself had little to add to the evening.
His presence was “a bit like arriving at a fancy dinner party to discover that the guest of honor is the next-door neighbor,” New York Times critic Alessandra Stanley wrote.
She said the show’s staging gave “a weird intimacy” to the proceedings that helped spark some unscripted moments, such as when “Grey’s Anatomy” co-star Katherine Heigl took the stage as a presenter and corrected the mispronunciation of her name.
“At times it was like a high-wattage open-mike night,” Stanley wrote.
The novel was less popular with the star-studded Shrine Auditorium audience, half of whom were relegated to watching the backs of performers on stage.
“These are the worst seats I ever had,” “Boston Legal” star James Spader said to applause, as he accepted his Emmy for best actor in a drama.
Spader’s victory over “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini was one of the biggest surprises in an evening filled with upsets, as first-time nominees and contenders regarded by pundits as relative underdogs claimed a number of key prizes.
But “The Sopranos,” feted with a glitzy musical tribute and standing ovations, walked off with the prestigious title of best drama series for its final season on HBO.