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TelevisionWeek columnist and deputy editor Josef Adalian applies his decades of experience covering the television industry to deliver analysis readers can't find anywhere else.

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Enough Emmy Excuses

July 17, 2008 11:29 AM

If Emmy voters had a message for the broadcast networks this year, it was this: No more excuses.

The breakthroughs by basic cable’s AMC and FX—along with strong showings by ad-supported networks such as TNT, USA, Bravo, Sci Fi and A&E—demonstrated that you can make a creative splash even when operating under the constraints of commercial television.

For more than a decade, the big networks have whined that HBO’s success at the Emmys was powered largely by its ability to spend lavishly on series production. When that didn’t work, they took refuge in the fact that HBO didn’t answer to advertisers and thus could put on whatever it wanted, Procter & Gamble be damned.

And yet FX didn’t break the bank to make “Damages,” at least compared to the cost of producing a “Grey’s Anatomy” or a “CSI.” AMC still airs commercials in between smoke-filled scenes of “Mad Men.”

To be sure, cable still has some major advantages over broadcasters when it comes to Emmy competition. Most of its series produce just 13 episodes per season (or fewer), compared to the 22-plus on the big nets. And cable’s dual-revenue stream makes it easier to support gems like “Mad Men” or “Damages,” even when they attract minuscule audiences.

But network executives wondering why they don’t get the same Emmy love they used to need to stop blaming the Emmy voting system and instead take a long, hard look at the way they develop and nurture new shows.

With the exception of ABC, which has been a creative beacon under Steve McPherson, the broadcast networks have consistently chosen comfort over creativity when cranking out dramas in recent years.

The “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises may be well-executed, and vital to a balanced prime-time diet. But CBS’ and NBC’s reliance on such safe choices—and Fox’s so far unsuccessful attempts to get in on their game (R.I.P., “K-Ville”)—has sent viewers hungry for challenging fare fleeing to cable.

Even when non-ABC networks come up with good shows, they rarely know what to do with them.

CBS double-pumps Canadian crime import “Flashpoint” but doesn’t offer the same support to the superior “Swingtown.” NBC has banished promising newcomer “Life” to Friday nights and exiled “Friday Night Lights” to DirecTV.

It shouldn’t be shocking, then, that this year NBC—the network of “ER,” “The West Wing,” “Hill Street Blues” and “St. Elsewhere”—has not a single show nominated for best drama. It’s the first time it has been shut out of the category since 1965.

What’s NBC’s excuse for that?

***

Emmy, as usual, got a lot of things wrong.

— “Lost” is widely regarded as one of the best series of the past two decades. While it was nice to see the show back in the drama series race, the lack of writing or directing nominations is stunning.

—Emmy voters didn’t seem to be really paying attention to reality TV this year. How else to explain the absence of “Survivor” in the reality competition race following a “Fans vs. Favorites” season that Salon.com (and quite a few other critics) called the show’s best season ever?

—In another sign that older voters dominate the Academy, The CW once again was essentially shut out. Given the network’s miserable ratings, it’s not a shock that voters might not be aware of its shows. But “Aliens in America,” “Everybody Hates Chris,” the costumes and makeup for “Gossip Girl” and Tyra Banks’ hosting chops on “America’s Next Top Model” should have been enough to get the network more than two piddly nominations.

—The failure to nominate “How I Met Your Mother” for comedy series wasn’t a surprise, since it didn’t even make the TV Academy’s top 10 list released earlier this month. But nominations for both HBO’s “Entourage” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” prove that sometimes voters can be a little too much in love with premium cable.

—On the comedy front, it would have been nice to see some love for “The Big Bang Theory,” which regularly aims for a much higher quality of comedy than Chuck Lorre’s other comedy, the Emmy-nominated “Two and a Half Men.”

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Comments (6)

Jimmy:

Right On! This article is dead on. The development execs at the broadcast nets are so focused on their own careers first and foremost they only do enough to stay employed. The idea that the execs at the broadcast nets are on the lookout for the next great show is a ridiculous myth. The only thing they are on the lookout for is the next great career advancement.

Thats partly why there is an exodus of viewers away from broadcast TV to cable. And its not the fault of advertisers or the internet or DVRs. The same old tired TV producers are producing the same old tired shows. If you want fresh shows you have to look for fresh talent. But that's too much of a career risk for anyone at the broadcast nets. Better to find a big name to get behind, regardless of how stupid the show concept is and how out of touch they are with the rest of America.

How many cop shows, doctor shows and lawyer shows can they make? Good lord, there's a whole world out there people.

In essence, a programmer has to ignore the "business" of the business, the "connections" of the business, and get down to their own gut level about what to go with and what to throw out.

NBC's Brandon Tartikoff had it, CBS's Bud Grant had it...you also have to have the balls to ignore the politics and pushers. They're the ones who keep score and demand favors...you can't go onto Main Street at High Noon distracted by anything...focused ONLY on walking away at 12:15, your Colt smoking in it's holster!
Peter Bright

Laurie Jones:

Excellent points. Cable's ability to produce excellent shows, especially on premium cable, points to a growing segmentation of the audience/market, allowing more opportunities for a wider range of stories aimed at niche audiences, not just those that are deemed "safe" for a composite of the "average" viewer.

The writing, direction and acting on "Life," "Friday Night Lights," "Lost," and "Heroes" ranks right up there with "Damages," "Dexter," "Weeds," "The Closer," and "Mad Men." Perhaps those shows would have done better with Emmy voters if they had been produced on cable rather than network television. After all, cable has developed a certain reputation that can't help but influence viewers' perceptions.

Ewan Mee:

I'm more than a bit disappointed that AMC's "Breaking Bad" didn't even get a mention. Could it be that despite the all around quality, the subject matter is even too taboo for basic cable? Both the writing and the performances of the actors/actresses (pretty much ALL of them,) are outstanding and deserved at the very least a nomination!!!!
SNUBBED!!!

Ewan Mee:

Mea Culpa...

I have just been informed that Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston has in fact been nominated for the lead actor in a drama series category...
So now, we wait to see if justice is served!

DG:

Amen Joe. Thank you for having the balls and the ability to write this column.

On paper, the best stuff should be on broadcast network…they have the resources and the budgets not only to make the biggest shows with the best writers, directors, and actors, they also should have the imagination and talents of the best network creative team as well.

What gets in the way is the need for mass appeal and the seemingly inability to take risks (or doing something new). Ironically the networks’ very strength, their resources, actually hinder them because it erects a risk aversion mentality.

That is why the Brandon Tartikoffs and Grant Tinkers et al were so amazing. They saw through the apparent and inherent risk to the future success such shows would have. Who is able to do that today on a regular basis?

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