LOS ANGELES - When cable channel HBO tried to woo the Emmy Awards away two years ago, the networks fought back and won.
Network executives could be rethinking the victory in light of the poor ratings posted by Sunday's ceremony, watched by the smallest audience since 1990.
Adding insult to injury: HBO claimed many of the awards, including a record 11 trophies for the miniseries "Angels in America" and a best drama series Emmy for "The Sopranos" - the first cable drama to win in the category.
HBO dominated with 32 awards. Fox collected 10, followed by NBC with 8, ABC and PBS with seven each and CBS - the most-watched network - with two.
Awards show tend to draw bigger audiences when widely popular shows are up for honors. The leading nominees Sunday couldn't claim that status since they air on a premium cable channel reaching about a third of the nation's TV homes.
"That 'Angels' show that won all those awards - I said, 'Huh, what's that?'" viewer Janina Perez, who has satellite TV but doesn't subscribe to HBO, said Monday.
An estimated 14 million viewers watched the 56th annual prime-time Emmys, according to preliminary Nielsen Media Research figures Monday. Final numbers are expected Tuesday.
If the tally holds, it would represent the smallest audience for the Emmys since 12.3 million saw it in 1990 on Fox - a fledgling network that many people weren't in the habit of watching.
The latest figures mark a 22 percent drop from the 17.9 million viewers who watched last year's Emmys on Fox. Ratings dropped even further - by 34 percent - among viewers aged 18 to 49, the demographic favored by advertisers.
Before the ceremony, one network executive had expressed concern about the effect of cable TV, which increasingly has cut into broadcast viewership, on the Emmys.
"The fragmentation of the audience and the celebration of programming that has been seen by virtually no one" is a key factor in Emmy ratings, said Fox network Executive Vice President Preston Beckman.
Intended as a kickoff for the opening of the broadcast networks' fall TV season, the awards largely served as a promotion for HBO and a reminder of the major network shows that ended last year, including "Friends" and "Frasier."
One broadcast beneficiary of the awards could be Fox's "Arrested Development," a critically acclaimed comedy that was renewed for a second year despite low ratings. It won as best comedy series.
The Emmys are sticking with broadcasters for some time to come.
ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, which air the awards in rotation, renewed their contract with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for eight years after countering HBO's 2002 bid.