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An estimated 14 million viewers watched the triumphs of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Angels in America” on the Emmy Awards Sunday night on ABC — an alarmingly low number for what is supposed to be television’s big night.
If those preliminary Nielsen Media Research numbers hold up, that would represent the smallest audience for the Emmys since 12.3 million saw it in 1990 on Fox — at the time a new network that many people weren’t used to seeking out.
The latest figures mark a 22 percent drop from the 17.9 million viewers who saw the Emmys on Fox in 2003. Ratings were down even more sharply — 34 percent — among viewers aged 18 to 49, the demographic most attractive to advertisers.
While disappointing to ABC, the numbers might serve as an ominous sign for television in general. This is the opening week of the TV season for the major broadcast networks and the Emmys are held in September to get viewers excited about new and returning shows.
Also disturbing to the networks: Emmy headlines were all about HBO, a premium cable service available in about a third of the nation’s television homes.
One bright spot for the networks was the best comedy award of Fox’s “Arrested Development,” which proved at least somebody was watching the ratings-starved show.
“The Sopranos” was the first cable series to be named best drama, while “Angels in America,” the miniseries about AIDS in America during the 1980s, had a record-breaking night.
“We’ve put a lot of work into it and I think we’ve gotten better. It’s good that it finally paid off,” series creator David Chase said of “The Sopranos,” which is entering its last season.
Gone, but not forgotten
Meanwhile, the theme was “gone, but not forgotten” in many of the acting categories as stars who ended their runs as beloved characters on “The Sopranos,” “Frasier” and “Sex and the City” collected most of the series trophies.
Drea de Matteo, who played the ill-fated mob girlfriend Adriana la Cerva on “The Sopranos,” won for best drama series supporting actress, while Michael Imperioli, who played her backstabbing boyfriend Christopher Moltisanti, collected supporting drama-series actor.
“There are so many people that are responsible for this, that if I even try to thank any of them right now, I might puke, choke, cry or die. And you’ve already seen me do that,” said de Matteo, whose character met a grim end last season. She’s now on NBC’s “Friends” spinoff “Joey.”
Mirroring the concern in Hollywood over the dwindling number and quality of situation comedies, the four major comedy acting awards each went for work in a series that has ended. Kelsey Grammer won his fourth Emmy for best actor in a comedy for “Frasier” and Sarah Jessica Parker won best actress for “Sex and the City.”
“I had the most extraordinary life on television,” Grammer said. “’Frasier’ was a gift in my life and the people that I got to meet and work with were the greatest and this is just the cherry on top.”
David Hyde Pierce won a supporting actor award for “Frasier,” which ended an 11-year run this spring, and Cynthia Nixon won best supporting actress for “Sex and the City.”
“In sitcom school they tell you how great it is to have a long-running show,” said Hyde Pierce, “but they don’t tell you how hard it is to say goodbye.”
Although cable ruled the night, Fox’s “Arrested Development” provided a rare bright spot for broadcast television, winning as best comedy series after a freshman year that was critically acclaimed but low rated.
“This is so huge for us. You know what? Let’s watch it,” series creator Mitchell Hurwitz urged viewers.
Fresh face on podiumThe broadcast networks also claimed honors for Allison Janney of NBC’s “The West Wing” and James Spader of ABC’s “The Practice,” who won best actor awards for drama.
“You’ve all made wonderful choices in shoes and dresses tonight and you all look absolutely beautiful,” Spader said in a lighthearted acceptance.
“Angels in America,” the miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the 1980s AIDS crisis, won seven Emmys, including outstanding miniseries and acting trophies for Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker and Jeffrey Wright. Kushner received a best writing award and Mike Nichols won best director.
The two-part series proved a record breaker. With the four Emmys won Sept. 12 at the creative arts awards, it exceeded the nine awards “Roots” won in 1977 to become the most honored miniseries — and matched the 11 won by “Eleanor and Franklin” in 1976, the most for any program in one season.
Streep praised Kushner’s words as the reason for the TV miniseries’ success.
“The bravest thing in the world is that writer who sits alone in a room and works out his grief, his rage, his imagination and his deep desire to make people laugh. And he makes a work of art that then transforms the world with the truth, because that’s all we want, you know,” she said. “It’s all we need.”
The edgier programming on cable has come to overshadow the more restrained fare found on network television, where language, violence and sex are dealt with obliquely.
HBO received a dominant 32 awards. Fox collected 10, followed by NBC with 8, ABC and PBS with seven each and CBS with two.
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” which has spent this election year skewering the candidates for tiny Comedy Central, won an award for best variety series for the second year in a row. Stewart’s writing staff also won an Emmy.
Donald Trump and “Survivor” creator Mark Burnett found themselves looking on from the audience as a less-popular show, CBS’ “The Amazing Race,” won best reality series for the second year running.
Host Garry Shandling repeatedly poked fun at the genre. “It’s to the point now when a commercial comes on,” he quipped, “I go, ‘Thank God, professional actors in a story.”’