Emmys-man

Conan O'Brien is set to host (Virginia Sherwood / AP)

The Emmys are Sunday night on NBC. Did you know? Do you care?

Organizers are furrowing their brows over whether millions more viewers than usual will blow off TV's self-congratulatory spectacular, perhaps driving the ceremony to record-low ratings.

The 58th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards is airing a month earlier than normal — its first August date since 1992 — to accommodate NBC's new NFL lineup. So Kiefer Sutherland and Lisa Kudrow will wave from the red carpet in the blazing afternoon sun outside the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles at a time when last-minute vacationers are still paddling out to catch a wave. Who wants to applaud TV actors and writers for their labors when there are Labor Day barbecues to be planned?

As host Conan O'Brien joked recently about the ratings prospects: "I think most people are on an inflatable raft at that period of the summer."

Yet it's not just bad timing sabotaging the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' big night. For years, TV's self-congratulatory spectacular had the power to help make hits of under-watched shows, including "Six Feet Under" and "Hill Street Blues." But in today's hyper-competitive TV market, the Emmys are having a tough time getting any respect. A Newsday columnist this week dubbed the Emmys a showbiz joke, akin to Britney Spears' much-dissed husband, neophyte rapper Kevin Federline.

Consider the ceremony's fate so far this year: Critics and fans yelped about changes in voting rules that they say led to some hits, such as ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost," getting shortchanged or ignored entirely. ABC's entertainment chief last month bashed back: The network is airing the movie hit "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" opposite the Emmys. Meanwhile, cable's USA channel — owned by NBC Universal, it's worth noting — is also running its season finale of the popular sci-fi drama "The 4400" at the same time.

The problem might not be this or that nomination oversight but rather the sheer volume of, and lightning-fast pace of change in, today's TV programming. It's beginning to seem naive to devote a night to saluting the best in an increasingly fragmented, multichannel universe, filled with acclaimed shows many viewers have never heard of, let alone watched.

"Market forces are getting unleashed on the Emmys in a way that was papered over in years past," said one prominent academy member, who declined to speak on the record because of fears of alienating colleagues. "Everybody started looking at it as just a TV show."

Academy officials say they're confident ratings will hold up fine and don't expect the voting controversies to influence ordinary viewers. But they admit the date change is less than ideal, given that the TV season doesn't officially begin till next month.

"Our preference would have been to have the traditional Sunday night before the start of the season," academy Chairman Dick Askin said in an interview Wednesday morning at the Shrine, where several dozen workers buzzed around the stage, checking lighting rigs and making other final adjustments to the set.

But Askin added that NBC has heavily promoted the awards show and that a "stellar lineup of presenters" will appear. The roster includes "House's" Hugh Laurie and "The Sopranos' " Edie Falco and James Gandolfini, whose conspicuous absences from the acting nominations had fans fulminating earlier this summer.

Of course, the Emmys still draw a large national TV audience by today's standards. Last year's ceremony on CBS was watched by an average of 18.6 million viewers, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. Although that's about half the size of the crowd for the Academy Awards, such a figure does put the Emmys in the company of solid hits like ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

But Emmy ratings, like those for most award shows, have suffered an unmistakable years-long decline. The falloff has been especially steep among the young adults most attractive to advertisers. The 1998 Emmys captured 22% of viewers ages 18 to 49; in 2004, that figure plummeted to 12%, an all-time low.

Some officials say that rotating the Emmys annually on a telecast "wheel" among the four major networks — NBC, Fox, ABC and CBS — only aggravates the problem. Even building traditions around a host, as the Oscars once did with Billy Crystal, has proved difficult because producers keep picking different stars for the job. O'Brien last hosted when NBC had the show in 2002; Ellen DeGeneres was the host of last year's awards.

But the fact that NBC finished the 2005-06 season mired in fourth place could put a special crimp in this year's ratings.

In fact, the network's problems have already affected the show. Concerned about their costly and heavily promoted lineup of Sunday NFL games, NBC executives pressed academy officials for the date switch, not wanting to hold the Emmys on a weeknight for fear of disrupting series' busy production schedules. Delaying the awards until later in the season would just take them further away from the traditional fall launch.

So network and academy officials "both came to the conclusion this was the best alternate date," Askin said.

The message, however, was clear: Network business considerations came first. The fate of the TV industry's supposedly biggest night didn't loom large in the equation.

"I don't think that's what they were thinking of when they planned their September," Shari Anne Brill of New York ad firm Carat said of NBC executives. (NBC declined to comment on the record for this report.)

As a result, academy officials are left hoping for the best — and bracing for the worst — for an award show that suddenly seems diminished in influence and appeal, if not in hype or length.

"My concern is people being on vacation," Hurst said. "There's a lot of concern about viewership. Luckily, we won't have this problem next year."

Channel Island covers the television industry. For the latest posting, go to latimes.com/channelisland. Contact reporter Scott Collins at channelisland@latimes.com.