Why were Emmy ratings so good in dog days of summer?

This year’s Emmys drew the second-largest audience in eight years: 15.6 million viewers and a 4.2 rating in the 18 to 49 key sales demographic. This far exceeded expectations, as NBC had moved the ceremony up a month so that they would not have to preempt their number-one program “Sunday Night Football.” NBC had also shifted the Emmys from Sunday to avoid the MTV Video Music Awards. (Never mind that NBC could have aired the Emmys on a Monday in September.)

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The opening monologue by host Seth Meyers got a lot of mileage out of the airdate, remarking that they were the first Emmys on a Monday in almost four decades: “No one remembers the 1976 Emmys because they were held on a Monday.” As these jokes came at five o’clock on the west coast, they should have been missed by many in the workforce, who could have related to them most. Yet the ratings were high, so why did viewers go out of their way to watch the Emmys this year?

It could be the movie stars. Nominations this year included bids by Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey, Julia Roberts, Ellen Burstyn, and Billy Bob Thornton. But if viewers were excited for film actors on television, where were the ratings for those projects? “The Normal Heart” with Roberts had an audience less than half the size of the last two HBO spring releases that won the top Emmy. Movie stars being nominated for telefilms is standard. Taking on an anthology series as McConaughey did is more unique, but the ratings for “True Detective” were unexceptional. “Game of Thrones” doubles its numbers on the same network.

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Viewers may have been more interested to see how well “Game of Thrones” did at the Emmys. Gone for now are the days of low-rated critical gems like “Mad Men” and “30 Rock” dominating the Emmys for years on end, while highly-watched dramas like “NCIS” are ignored. The last couple of years have seen a convergence of critical and commercial success; dramas on cable are surpassing those on the big four broadcast networks.

“Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” were two of the three top-rated dramas this past year in the key demographic. The former led the nominations and the latter won big. Even top-rated “The Walking Dead” is winning Creative Arts Emmys, which is more than could be said for “NCIS.” The highest-rated non-cable drama this year was “Scandal,” which was up for Best Actress and won Guest Actor, which is again more than could be said for “NCIS.”

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It may not be coincidental that this year’s Emmy ratings were the second-highest since 2006, since that was the last time that a non-cable drama (“24”) ruled. The highest-rated telecast since was not when “Homeland” or “Boardwalk Empire” dominated the Emmys but last year — the first time that “Breaking Bad” won Best Drama and “Game of Thrones” led drama nominations.

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