2012 Emmy Awards: Here’s what you need to know before show time

Jon Hamm and the “Girls” — how’s that for a sexy tagline for Sunday’s 64th Primetime Emmy Awards on ABC?

The annual awards rite could use a splash of sex appeal, with ratings falling and the nominations going to series the vast majority of Americans don’t regularly follow. For the first time, none of the big four broadcast networks has a series among the nominees for drama series.

So viewers who might have missed some of the offerings on the 100 or so networks piped into their home might appreciate a rough guide to the proceedings:

What are some special things to watch for this year? Pay close attention to the acting prizes, especially in the drama categories.

PHOTOS: Emmys 2012: Up-to-date list of winners


This is the fifth straight year that Hamm, who plays the morally conflicted 1960s ad man Don Draper on “Mad Men,” has been nominated for the role. He hasn’t won, but this could be the year. Also in the five-year-and-counting-club: “Dexter” star Michael C. Hall, who plays a likable serial killer on Showtime’s hit.

To get their overdue Emmys, however, Hamm or Hall will need to tiptoe past Bryan Cranston, who won three times in a row for his role as the high school teacher who turns to meth dealing on “Breaking Bad.”

Elisabeth Moss has been nominated three times for her work as Peggy Olson on “Mad Men,” so this could be a breakthrough year for the 30-year-old in the lead actress category.

Or maybe not: Voters’ sympathies might go with Kathy Bates, who was nominated for her title role as a tough veteran attorney on “Harry’s Law” and was publicly upset by the show’s cancellation. In fact, Bates has said she was more distraught by the series’ end than by her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Last week, Bates won an Emmy for her guest-starring role on an episode of “Two and a Half Men.” She could get a repeat on Sunday.

I’ve heard these nominees might be the least-watched Emmy crop ever. Just how niche-focused are these shows?

There are very few smash hits in the bunch. “Girls,” the HBO series created by and starring Lena Dunham, is a true critics’ darling and is among the comedy series contenders. But it didn’t average even 1 million viewers its first season.

And “Girls” is not alone. Of the six comedy nominees, only two — “Modern Family” and “The Big Bang Theory” — are mainstream hits (also, they are the only broadcast series among the 12 drama and comedy nominees). Beloved as Larry David is by fans, HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has never come close to the mass appeal of his earlier creation, “Seinfeld.” Yet the premium cable comedy grabbed another nomination for comedy series while voters snubbed some intriguing newer shows that may have a better potential growth curve, such as NBC’s “Parks & Recreation” and ABC’s “Happy Endings.”

If anything, the drama nominees are even less crowd-pleasing — although each has its own hard-core fan base. The highest rated of the six is PBS’ period piece “Downton Abbey,” whose Season 2 finale drew 5.4 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That’s about one-quarter of the audience for CBS’ procedural “NCIS,” the top scripted show on TV — and, as it happens, a show that has never been a big Emmy or critics’ favorite.

PHOTOS: Emmy nominations 2012: Top nominees

What does this tell us about Emmy voters? Isn’t there a disconnect between their taste and most Americans’?

Depends whom you ask. Some experts see the Emmys as out of touch with their core audience.

“The reason the Emmys don’t really resonate is that they’re not voted on by the people who really watch the shows,” said Paul Jankowski, a marketing expert and author of the book “How to Speak American: Building Brands in the New Heartland.”

Jankowski argues that TV networks too often ignore viewers in the heartland, or the areas between the two coasts, who make up 60% of the population. Most of those people are watching “NCIS” and “American Idol,” not “Girls” and “Downton Abbey.”

But many in the industry say that the number of people who watch the nominated shows is beside the point.

TIMELINE: Emmys 2012: winners through the years

“It’s not ratings size at all,” said Gary Carr, senior vice president and executive director of national broadcast at the media agency TargetCast in New York, adding that the Emmys are supposed to be based on artistic merit. “It’s not a popularity contest.”

What’s the deal with “American Horror Story”?

FX’s freaky fright-fest drew 17 nominations. But its Emmy tactics have some critics screaming, and not in a good way. The show is competing in the miniseries or movie category, even though it’s, um, not a miniseries or movie. There were 12 episodes and the second season is coming back in October. Under the same title. As in a series.

Not to worry, producers say. It’s an anthology show, and the characters will be different in Season 2. So the category fits. Kind of.

Critics aren’t buying that argument. “I don’t think it makes any sense,” said Dave Nemetz, a TV expert and content producer for Yahoo! Producers of HBO’s “Game Change” and History’s “Hatfields & McCoys” — also competing in the category — would probably agree.

So how will Jimmy Kimmel do as host?

It’s a truism among industry professionals that the choice of host has very little bearing on how many people tune in to an awards show. Viewers tend to care much more about which big stars will show up — or whether a show they care about is up for a big prize.

But Kimmel isn’t a bad choice for host. With his ABC show moving up to 11:35 p.m. in January, he’s got the industry cred for the gig. And he’s not afraid to take on boldfaced names. That’s key for an awards show that’s too often an exercise in self-congratulation.

“The Emmys need” Kimmel, Nemetz said. “It can be a bit of a snooze as TV viewing.”