Emmys Help, But Ratings Drive Off-Net

Stations are happy to have critical darlings like '30 Rock'—as long as they're hits

Emmys 2009: Complete Coverage

Emmy season offers a good reminder that acclaim and plaudits are important weapons in a syndicator's sales arsenal. But in the battle for syndication sales, shows still generally live and die by ratings.

“Buyers first and foremost are looking at a show's ratings, whether the show will repeat well and how compatible it is with their other shows,” says Scott Carlin, HBO's outgoing president of domestic television distribution, who recently finished selling the Emmy-winning Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm to stations and cable networks. “Emmys play some significant, but largely elusive, role in the decision-making process. They can only add a positive element to the sales process.”

Carlin should know: HBO is the master at turning critical acclaim into marketing gold, whether that's selling shows to TV stations, basic cable networks or consumers. Critical acclaim is particularly important to premium networks such as HBO, Showtime and Starz, which aren't distributed in every household like the broadcast networks and don't have nightly Nielsen ratings to report.

Stations are happy to have the opportunity to air critical darlings, but what they really care about is a show's performance, whether critically acclaimed or not. “Some of our most profitable shows wouldn't be allowed into the Emmys,” says one station executive. “What I really pay attention to when buying a program is its primetime performance. I would never walk into my boss' office after making an acquisition and announce, 'It's won Emmys.'”

And yet, where Emmy awards come in handy is when that positive notice builds a show's ratings. “The Emmys are a promotional tool under any set of circumstances,” says one syndication executive. That built-in promotion has helped many of TV's most successful series—including Cheers, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond and now 30 Rock—grow from poor-to-mediocre performers into true hits.

“When a show like 30 Rock wins awards and gets written up a lot by critics, viewers say, 'Hey, I have to check that out,'” says Barry Wallach, president of NBC Universal Domestic Television Distribution. “It becomes part of the reason that viewers tune in and that helps build buzz and ratings.”


Ratings growth has been a strong part of the story for 30 Rock, which, with 22 Emmy nominations, holds the comedy record for scoring the most nominations in one year. Last season, 30 Rock was the fastest-growing comedy on any major network, improving by 20% in total viewers to 7.8 million from 6.5 million, by 23% among adults 18-49 to a 3.8 rating from a 3.1, and by 32% among adults 18-34 to a 4.1 from a 3.1. Impressively, 30 Rock managed this growth while competing against ABC's and CBS's top-rated Grey's Anatomy and CSI, respectively.

NBCU and stations that recently bought 30 Rock are banking on those Emmy accolades continuing to boost the show's numbers. One of syndication's most successful sitcoms, CBS Television Distribution's Everybody Loves Raymond, continued to grow on the network and became more critically acclaimed after it debuted in syndication. Both those factors boosted Raymond's ratings in syndication.

“Sometimes it takes awhile for the viewership to catch up with a show's quality,” says Greg Meidel, the newly appointed president of Twentieth Television as well as president of My Network TV. “Cheers was not a ratings performer in its early days, yet critical acclaim helped catch buyers' attention. Eventually that paid off enormously for everyone.”

That said, the Emmys' real effect on any show is inconsistent. One of TV's most critically adored shows, Fox's Arrested Development, which won an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy in its first year of eligibility, was never able to gather a significant audience. Meanwhile, Warner Bros.' Two and a Half Men is often critically ignored (although the show's stars, Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer, are nominated this year in the lead and supporting comedy acting categories, respectively), but it is primetime's top comedy and one of syndication's most profitable sitcoms. It has never won a top acting or outstanding-series Emmy.

Owning a show that performs like Two and a Half Men is the goal of every Hollywood studio. For such series, winning Emmy gold is nice, but it's just icing on an already rich cake.

Emmys and Sitcoms: By the Numbers
Here are some prominent off-network sitcoms heading for syndication, the terms by which they were sold, and their Emmy wins and nominations.