UPDATE: The final Nielsen numbers show Sunday's Emmys just did avoid going down as the least watched on record.
The telecast averaged 12.33 million, up from the early estimate of 12.2 million. The figure puts the show just ahead of the 1990 telecast, which averaged 12.3 million. So, in other words, Sunday's show was merely the second least watched Emmys on record.
Reality bit for the Emmys.
If ratings estimates hold, last night's show will go down as the least-watched Emmy telecast on record.
From 8 to 11 p.m., the ABC telecast averaged 12.2 million, down 6 percent from last year's Nielsen-challenged affair, and on par with the record-low 12.3 million who caught the show in 1990.
This year was the fourth straight year of ratings decline for the Emmys, which last topped 20 million viewers in 2000.
Judging by the numbers, however, slightly more people were interested in this year's Emmy telecast than last, at least until the show started.
ABC's Jimmy Kimmel-hosted red-carpet preshow, which aired from 7 to 8 p.m., averaged 4.6 million viewers, up a tick from the 4.4 million Fox scored for its preshow in 2007.
Last night's show took hits from critics, and even Emmy winners, for its emphasis on reality TV as embodied by its squadron of reality-TV hosts: Survivor's Jeff Probst; Project Runway's Heidi Klum; American Idol's Ryan Seacrest; Dancing With the Stars' Tom Bergeron; and Deal or No Deal's Howie Mandel.
And while even Probst opened up about how the five-host plan had been tough to pull off, ABC chose to cite football, not reality TV, for Emmy's woes.
The network spin was not all spin. Since the Emmys started going head-to-helmet with the NFL last year, via NBC's Sunday Night Football, the show's ratings have gotten ugly.
Last night proved especially tough for the Emmys with a marquee Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers matchup airing opposite the show in some time zones. And if football versus the Emmys was a game, it would have been a rout.
From 8 to 11 p.m. (ET), Sunday Night Football scored an estimated 19.2 million viewers, walloping the Emmys and everything else on TV.
It didn't help the Emmys that its big winners were the barely watched Mad Men, the slightly more watched John Adams and, as Tina Fey joked, the Hulu-watched 30 Rock.
If only the Emmys had glowing reviews to make its day a little brighter, but it doesn't. One blog, Dvorak Uncensored, seemingly spoke for the critical mass with its headline, "The 60th Emmy Telecast—Pure Crap."
The mainstream press wasn't much kinder. The Hollywood Reporter suggested Emmy producers consider a format change. The Associated Press wondered aloud if the writers were still on strike (the better to explain the "dreary" show). In an online chat, the Washington Post's Tom Shales was as blunt as a blogger—"basically I thought it was terrible."
Well, at least Don Rickles had a good night.
(Originally published Sept. 22, 2008, at 10:15 a.m. PT.)