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The Emmys Salute Mass Media, May It Rest In Peace

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Bryan Cranston wins his second Best Drama Actor for Breaking Bad. / CBS

“Amy [Poehler] and I are honored to be presenting on the last official year of network broadcast television,” said Julia Louis-Dreyfus at the Emmy awards last night. She was joking. Or was she? The Emmys, hosted with song and wit by Neil Patrick Harris, was the funniest and most entertaining TV awards-cast in recent memory. But it also seemed, in many ways, like the first Emmy Awards of the post-mass-media era.

Consider some of the bits that worked best on last night’s show. (See my liveblog from last night for the blow-by-blow.) A skit based on Joss Whedon’s online musical, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Hilarious, esoteric awards patter by John Hodgman, the cerebral hipster humorist best known as the PC from the Mac commercials. A Jimmy Fallon joke about auto-tune. A YouTube gag from Family Guy. Jokes about Mad Men, the Best Drama winner for the second year in a row, which gets a couple million viewers in a good week.

It was an Emmy Awards of niches piled upon niches–delightful and satisfying to a TV critic and pop-culture junkie like myself, but it must have left a lot of viewers across the country scratching their heads: “A baby beating up a dog is funny why?”

The self-loathing critic in me says that if I loved this Emmy awards–and I did, from the first note of NPH’s opening tune (“She could turn a gay man straight / Oh wait… never mind, there’s Jon Hamm!”)–it must have tanked in the ratings. So be it. Harris is the kind of multi-threat entertainer who should be hosting every awards someone will give him. (And the rest should go to Ricky Gervais, who killed again as a presenter.)

[Update: Actually, preliminary ratings show the Emmys up from their recent all-time ratings lows. There’s a lesson here—always indulge the critics!]

The awards themselves also largely, if not exclusively, celebrated the power of niche TV, with many of the biggies going to basic cable, pay cable and PBS. (This, of course, irritates the big broadcast networks no end. As if in an act of rebellion or denial, this year’s host CBS ran a drama-series montage that included such non-nominated shows of its own as Criminal Minds and NCIS.)

Many of the major awards, actually, were repeats of last year, including wins for Glenn Close, Alec Baldwin, Bryan Cranston, Mad Men and 30 Rock (a big-network show but a relatively low-rated one). But while not all of these big winners were the most deserving (The Office, for starters, had a better season than 30 Rock), they were at least defensible.

They all also present a vision of TV as a medium in which better and better shows attract smaller and smaller audiences. The flip side of that is less ad revenue, which is the reason for the real big TV story of this fall, The Jay Leno Show. Accepting for 30 Rock, Tina Fey jokingly thanked NBC: “Thanks for keeping us on the air even though we are so much more expensive than a talk show.”

Let’s hope that lasts, Tina. Let’s hope that lasts.