Donald Trump was the star of Sunday Night’s Emmy Awards. The Apprentice wasn’t nominated for anything this year and he wasn’t physically at the theater, but the people who were there couldn’t stop protesting him, poking fun at him, even singing about him. Alec Baldwin won an award for portraying him on Saturday Night Live—and jokingly dedicated the award to him: “Mr. President, here is your Emmy.” Musing on TV’s constant references to the president, Stephen Colbert cited: “All the late-night shows, obviously, House of Cards. The new season of American Horror Story, and of course next year’s Latin Grammys, hosted by [Trump ally] Sheriff Joe Arpaio.” When Donald Glover won an Award for best actor in a comedy, he hilariously quipped, “I want to thank Trump for making black people No. 1 on the most oppressed list.” Comedy gold!
For years, TV’s glamorati have hijacked entertainment awards shows to demonstrate their political allegiances, but the problem has grown worse since Trump was elected. Sunday night’s show was so politically charged that The Los Angeles Times, Hollywood’s hometown paper, ran a headline on its website declaring, “This year’s Emmys didn’t even pretend not to be political.”
As these telecasts have become more consciously partisan, their ratings have plummeted. The 2016 and 2017 Emmy broadcasts were the least-watched ever. Since Middle America doesn’t want to listen to pampered progressives smarting off, it’s tempting to assume that viewership has dropped because the show has gone political. But I think it’s the other way around: the show has gone political because of low ratings.
During the decades that followed the Second World War, television provided a common cultural narrative that contributed to a broader national culture. When there were only three networks, each one had to go for a broad audience: Both sexes, all ages and every political persuasion. That meant that the networks would generally try not to annoy anyone with sex, violence or partisan politics.
In 2017 so far, 342 new scripted television series have aired in America, 62 of which were released on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Add all the non-scripted shows, reruns and YouTube videos, and hardly anyone in America is watching the same thing at the same time—even within the same household. A recent survey by Katz Media Group found that most people had never heard of half of this year’s Emmy-nominated programs. Sixty-nine percent had not heard of Donald Glover’s show Atlanta, for instance. The Netflix comedy Master of None left 76 percent of respondents drawing a blank. And only 58 percent of those surveyed knew about Hulu’s dystopian drama, The Handmaid’s Tale.
With a splintered audience, no show can hope to garner more than a small percentage of viewers. There isn’t one big American audience anymore; there are now many separate American audiences. So, networks and streaming services have a new goal: to grab as many of those discrete audiences as they can. The upside to this change is that TV has become better. Particularly on cable and streaming services, TV creators have more freedom to develop shows without the constraints inherent in reaching both a little girl and her great-grandfather. Netflix’s Narcos can be full of violence and sex, and half in Spanish. The Crown is allowed to be slow-paced and true-to-life. And Veep is free to be obnoxious and political. Each show survives by appealing to its true fans—like-minded people. Just like politicians in a gerrymandered district, these artists don’t worry much about those who disagree with them. Those people aren’t going to watch anyway!
Middle Americans don’t watch the Emmys because they don’t watch the shows being honored. When an actor stands up before an intimate crowd of his left-wing peers and a small TV audience of liberal fans, the temptation to go for the cheap political joke or tacky partisan slogan is too great to pass up. Who’s it going to bother? People who disagree are watching Sunday Night Football…or some other program not nominated for an Emmy.
The increasing politicization of entertainment industry awards shows is just another sign of America’s dying common culture. It’s not the cause of death, but it isn’t good medicine either.
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