Best performance by the Emmycasters-or worst?

Nov 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

They really ought to give out Emmys for the drama that goes on behind the scenes at the Emmys. When TV industry honchos go at each other like George W. Bush and Saddam Hussein, it’s more intriguing than any episode of “The West Wing.”
There would’ve been many winners among the TV titans who just gave gritty performances these past few weeks: bucking horns, pulling sneaky maneuvers and barking threats during backroom meetings while clashing over the Emmycast rights. Lucky for all players, what looked like a jaw-dropping TV show resulted in a classic happy Hollywood ending: The Emmys got a lot more respect and a lot more money.
What’s unhappy about the clash, though, is that it had to happen at all. But it occurs regularly throughout Emmy history, as if it’s a scene shot on old kinescope that’s stuck on a continuous loop.
As recently as 1993, ABC pulled off what HBO just failed to: It grabbed the Emmycast rights exclusively for three years, at $2.5 million per annum, when the other networks refused to offer more than $2.1 million. Back then the ABC deal went over like a scud missile over Baghdad, exploding into a boycott by rival network execs and NBC’s resignation from the Academy’s executive committee. Industry infighting got so ugly that rival TV execs denounced the deal as “treacherous” and “a blatant betrayal of trust.” Immediately after the Emmycast, ABC and the TV Academy ripped up their contract and sheepishly headed back to the wheel-deal table.
But that’s not what happened back in 1987 when the then-truly foxy young Fox Network nabbed the Emmycast exclusively for $4 million when the Big 3 networks would only cough up $875,000. Boycotts were threatened afterward, but they never materialized.
As predicted, Emmycast ratings tumbled dramatically as a result, dropping to a 14 share from the previous year’s 36, but Fox and Emmy proved they could put on a bravura show befitting TV’s top award. Fox tried all kinds of wacky things the Big 3 never would’ve dreamed of, including interrupting the ceremony with comic skits that left the audience howling. (Jane Curtin’s riff on failed Supreme Court candidate Robert Bork was a standout.) The trailblazing telecast also introduced innovations that are now used routinely on award shows. People magazine gave the fresh new Emmycast an A+, declaring: “The baby network did OK.”
The Fox show’s success posed a fascinating possibility: ratings, egads, may not matter as much as the integrity of the event itself. There was more good news too. Fox’s power grab resulted in a heroic industry coup: It wrested control of the TV Academy away from the clutches of the Big 3. One year after Fox seized the Emmys, cable shows were finally permitted to compete.
Last week it looked as though cable-and HBO, of all channels, that notorious Emmy grabber-might actually nab the Emmycast next. Cable webs are bound, someday, to get their chance to host TV’s annual family hoedown. But TV’s Gang of Four (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) just managed to fend off HBO’s ambush offer of $10 million per year by countering with a bid of $5.5 million. That offer was quite a hike from the $3 million the Academy used to get and the $4 million it probably would’ve received without a rival bid, but it’s still paltry considering that the show brings in $10 million to $20 million in ad revenues. The sum is also woefully shy of what the Grammys ($20 million-plus per year) and Oscars ($40 million-plus) earn in fees. Once again, HBO proved to be Emmy’s best friend.
Although the Emmycast drama is now resolved, there remains a fascinating cliffhanger looming overhead: What would’ve happened if HBO had pulled off its coup? After that initial, predictable uproar by the Gang of Four, would the deal have been ultimately scoffed at as the Fox deal was? Or would it have ushered in TV’s Armageddon as did the ABC deal?
CBS’s Les Moonves painted a gothic doomsday scenario and used hardball tactics while representing the Gang of Four before the TV Academy’s Board of Governors last Wednesday. He pointedly spoke of retaliation the networks could take should the Emmycast end up on HBO, including counterprogramming special events and a network-employee boycott of the Academy.
The Gang of Four was clearly furious, but it’s possible the threats could’ve blown over soon afterward if the HBO offer had been accepted. That is, after all, what happened when the uproar erupted over the Fox deal in 1987. When everybody finally calmed down, they all showed up at the first Fox Emmycast, stifling smirks, secretly predicting disaster and dying of curiosity to see what those uppity young TV Turks would do.
If HBO had aired the Emmys, what savvy network exec could resist going to the first ceremony staged by the network considered TV’s coolest, grittiest, brashest, edgiest and most artistically dangerous?
Oh, and what would that HBO telecast have looked like?
HBO CEO Chris Albrecht says he would’ve dazzled America with the amazing pageant he planned to ballyhoo all across Turner’s channels-the ideal model of corporate synergy.
HBO’s signal would have been unscrambled, thus inviting all of cabled America to tune in to a channel normally reserved just for the hip folks who know who Samantha’s sleeping with on “Sex and the City.” And all viewers would experience that sensuous luxury of watching TV without commercials. The absence of those frequent sponsor interruptions would’ve given HBO all kinds of artistic room to stretch out and try daring things. But that telecast, regardless of its pow, wouldn’t promise to be too butt-friendly.
Albrecht adds, “Don’t worry. We’d include two bathroom breaks. People need to get up and stretch.”
Ah, well. There now remains quite a stretch of time-eight years, the duration of the newest wheel deal-before that HBO show can possibly be greenlit. Till then, the curious will have to, as they say in the TV biz, stay tuned for the next Emmy drama.#
Tom O’Neil is senior editor at In Touch Weekly, the author of “The Emmys,” “The Grammys” and “Movie Awards” (Perigee Books) and host of the award-predic- tions Web site GoldDerby.com.