There are reasons to be optimistic that Sunday's Emmy ratings will continue the rebound begun last year after nearly a quarter-century of declining numbers -- and the stakes couldn't be higher.
With negotiations yet to begin on a new long-term licensing agreement to air the Primetime Emmys, another boost in audience size from the 13.5 million viewers in 2009 could push the major networks to ante up and sign on. It would provide the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with added leverage in what inevitably will be difficult discussions with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
The expiring eight-year contract signed in 2002 contains a clause that gives the Big Four an exclusive 60-day negotiating period leading to Sunday's telecast. After that, the academy is free to invite basic cable, pay TV or even Internet platforms to share the air or even take on the entire show.
So far, that leverage hasn't meant much. Although a committee of academy governors and their chief negotiator, attorney Kenneth Ziffren, reached out to start the process as early as June, there have been no negotiations, and none are scheduled.
Multiple sources said the networks, which rotate the show among them, have indicated a willingness to talk and re-up for another round but have made it clear they don't plan to pay much more than in the past and might even seek a reduction in the license fee. This is life or death for the TV Academy, which gets the bulk of its funding from the license fee and related Emmy promotions.
In 2002, with premium cable network HBO offering to carry the show, the Big Four agreed to raise the $3 million-a-show fee to $5.5 million for the first four years and $7.5 million for the next four. (Unlike the Oscars, that doesn't include production costs, which each network picks up.)
This time, HBO isn't likely to bid on its own, and there has been no discernible interest from basic cable, at least not yet.
If the Emmys are taken off the Big Four, broadcasters likely wouldn't enter the races or allow their talent to participate; they wouldn't buy tickets, tables and ads; and they would counterprogram the show even more aggressively.
The academy won't discuss it, Ziffren declined comment, and the networks say there is nothing to discuss. But one thing is clear: Better ratings would spur the process.
Helping matters this year: Broad-appeal series such as "Glee" and "Modern Family" are up for multiple awards, the Emmycast will air live nationwide for the first time, and the show has no NFL competition (this will be the second time under this contract that NBC will air the Emmys before Labor Day to avoid the network's powerhouse "Sunday Night Football" franchise).
So while the good news is there's no football, the bad news is that it's the weekend before Labor Day, when there are fewer viewers available or interested than in mid-September.