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TV's biggest night wasn't.

ABC's star-studded Sunday telecast of the 56th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards averaged an all-time low of 14 million viewers, and helped, if that's the word, its network to a second-place finish for the night, per estimates.

Despite appearances, and wins, by the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Meryl Streep and the mob from The Sopranos, CBS won the final contest of the 2003-2004 TV year.

The Eyeball counterprogrammed the Emmys with an imposing slate of, well, reruns--in particular, Cold Case, CSI: Miami, Without a Trace.

In just two years now, the Emmys' audience has shrunk by one-third--from 20 million viewers for NBC's 2002 telecast, to 17.9 million for last year's Fox presentation, to this year's least watched effort.

According to Nielsen Media Research, Sunday's 14 million is even smaller than the few, the hardy, the 14.4 million who watched the Emmys in 1987, the first year the telecast was broadcast on then-upstart Fox.

ABC gamely sought to explain (read: blame) the show's lackluster showing on "stiffer competition," which outside of run-over from NFL football on CBS, consisted of the aforementioned reruns and the umpteenth rebroadcast of Titanic on NBC.

More likely, the telecast was hampered by big wins from shows with relatively small audiences, led by the HBO troika of Sex and the City, Angels in America and The Sopranos, the only member of its pay-cable brethren to routinely challenge, and sometimes best, the broadcast networks in the ratings.

And while the Outstanding Comedy Series win for Fox's Arrested Development pleased the taste-makers, not to mention Jason Bateman, the show, which averaged 6.2 million viewers last season, became the second-least-watched show to ever claim the category. (The least-watched of all-time? Sex and the City, the Emmy winner from 2001.)

Still, a second-place finish for ABC is a second-place finish--that would be two places higher than usual. Its game face on, the network noted that the Emmys, playing to chirping crickets or no, offered it "a broad promotional platform" for all those shows nobody will watch come the new fall season.

If viewers left the Emmys behind, critics raised it up.

In the Hollywood Reporter, Ray Richmond praised the Garry Shandling-hosted show as "the most entertaining and satisfying Emmy telecast in recent memory."

Shandling, Richmond wrote, was "inspired."

Likewise, Daily Variety's Brian Lowry praised Shandling, noting the comic "doesn't get out as much as he should anymore." (Shandling previously hosted the Emmys for ABC four years--and 7 million additional viewers--ago.)

But Lowry also gave voice to a common complaint concerning Sunday's show: It was efficient (ending precisely on the three-hour mark)--too efficient.

"Granted, hearing people babble endlessly can be tedious," Lowry wrote, "but the zero-tolerance policy appeared to unnerve subsequent winners and cast a pall over the proceedings."

Among those drowned out by the Emmy orchestra: James Gandolfini, who came to the stage to celebrate The Sopranos' win for Outstanding Drama Series. He got cut off as he attempted to share the story of a Marine platoon that named its armored tank vehicle after Tony Soprano's boat.

Backstage, Shandling said he understood producers wanting to bring the telecast in on time, but added that he wasn't a fan of winners being played off.

"I say we lock the doors and go all night," Shandling told reporters--a quip delivered with a straight face.

Shandling's own Emmy performance did not escape critism. On the Los Angeles-centric blog, LAist.com, Jerry Mahoney took Shandling to task for spending much of his microphone time making fun of reality TV--"an entire range of programs he clearly didn't even watch."

To his credit, Shandling did help create a pair of genuine new reality TV stars.

Bruce Milam Jr. and Amy Scholsohn, the two people brought out blindfolded to the Emmy stage Sunday night, spent Monday doing the talk-show rounds. First up, was ABC's Good Morning America, to be followed by a Tonight Show appearance.

Fortunately, the booking was made before the ratings came in.