Well, they weren’t quite that unpopular. But here are some TV series that won major Emmy Awards despite a very low viewership.
Mad Men won the Best Drama Series award for each of its first four seasons (2007-2011). It’s never been that popular of a show, ratings-wise. One of the first series to air on the then-obscure cable network American Movie Classics, it struggled to attract more than a million viewers in its first season. It’s main timeslot competition at the time, which brought in three times as many eyeballs, was E!’s Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
The quirky CBS drama Picket Fences won Best Drama in 1993 and 1994, its first two seasons. The show about a family in a small Wisconsin town, with lots of police and courtroom plotlines, faltered in its Friday night timeslot. Its first season the show was #80 amongst all shows, and in its second season, jumped all the way up to #66.
The 1971 winner for Best Drama was The Bold Ones: The Senator. The Bold Ones was an umbrella title for a number of different series that aired every few weeks in the same timeslot. In addition to The Senator, viewers could watch The New Doctors, The Lawyers, and The Protectors. The Senator starred Hal Holbrook as a crusading, idealistic senator…and it was the least popular of all The Bold Ones offerings. The Bold Ones series lasted until 1972, but The Senator was cancelled after one season of eight installments. It’s the briefest series to ever win Best Drama at the Emmys—shows that get nominated for and win in the Best Miniseries category are technically longer than The Senator.
Despite airing right after Fox’s perennial hit, The Simpsons, the comedy Arrested Development flopped in the 2003-2004 TV season. It ranked #120 out of all shows, or just about last. But critics and fans loved the show’s dense, joke-and-callback heavy format, and how it was one of the first network sitcoms to ditch a laugh track. It won the Best Comedy Series Emmy in 2004 and aired for two more shortened, little-watched seasons on Fox.