Big 4 win in Emmy imbroglio

Nov 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Sure the money was nice, but in the end it was three “F’s” that prompted Academy board members to give the broadcast networks the rights to the Primetime Emmy Awards over HBO: fear, Fox and a certain four-letter “F” word.
Despite a substantially higher bid by HBO for the rights to the Primetime Emmy Awards telecast, the Academy board voted “overwhelmingly but not unanimously” last Wednesday to approve a new deal with the networks.
The deal gives the Academy more creative control, allowing it to share the final say on host, director, producer and production company with the network airing the ceremony. It also includes nonexclusivity on the red carpet before the event.
Many Academy voters were also swayed to approve the measure because they feared the move to cable would hurt the future of the show given HBO’s limited 85 percent national coverage that the show would get provided cable operators descrambled HBO’s signal for the night. Some felt that the ceremony still hadn’t recovered from its first telecast on Fox in the late ’80s and thought another such move could be disastrous.
The sacred and the profane
Another point that seemed to turn voters against the switch to HBO was the fear of the “F” word. Although the Academy would have had mutual approval over who would host the show, it would not have had approval over the monologue and feared the performer selected to host the event would push the envelope too far for viewers’ tastes.
“Yes, it’s true,” one board member said Thursday. “The threat of the `F’ word’s appearing on the show jolted the opinions of certain people last night.”
The Emmy renewal drama started last week when the Academy began discussing HBO’s five-year, $50 million bid with a group of reporters. The Big 4 networks originally offered approximately $3.3 million a year for the rights to be rotated among the networks. The Academy wanted the broadcast networks to match the $10 million per year that HBO offered. After much posturing and numerous threats by the broadcast networks to pull all their support from the Academy, the Academy and the networks compromised with the four networks’ paying $5.5 million for each of the first four years and $7.5 million for each of the remaining four years to continue the current “wheel” format. The eight-year deal is worth $52 million overall.
“For a moment there, it really was getting uncomfortable,” said one high-level executive at CBS. “Even I wasn’t sure how far anybody was willing to go as it got down to the wire.”
The result appeared to be more than acceptable to all parties involved.
“This is a precedent-setting win-win for both sides,” Chairman Bryce Zabel said after governors representing the Academy’s 27 peer groups approved the deal at their November meeting. “It’s a good day for the Television Academy, and that’s good news for the broadcast community. Every dollar of this new agreement goes back into the industry.”
“We genuinely achieved what we set out to do from the beginning,” agreed Tribune Entertainment President Dick Askin, who is also first vice chair of the Academy. “Our goals were really twofold: one, to increase what was really an undervalued license fee, and two, to tackle some creative issues we wanted to address. There was a lot of celebration last night when the final decision was made to approve the deal.”
On the outside was HBO, which had offered a $10 million-a-year, five-year deal and an opportunity to change the fabric of the awards show by eliminating commercials for the telecast.
“While I am certainly disappointed that we didn’t win the Emmys, I am glad that the Academy finally got some respect from the big wheels in the big wheel,” said HBO Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht.
Insiders from both the Academy and the networks maintain that neither the threat to shift the awards to HBO nor the potential boycott by the networks was faked.
Real repercussions
“Had the networks decided not to step up with an acceptable offer, we would have been proud to have moved the Emmys to HBO. But in turn we had to realize that the repercussions we faced were real,” Mr. Askin said. “I think the fact [was] that if we did disenfranchise the broadcast elements of the business we could have placed ourselves in an unhealthy situation.”
Still it’s clear that in an era of watching the NBA and NFL on cable, the bidding could constitute a wake-up call to networks as the specter of cable influence continues to grow.
“I don’t think this will be the last time we’ll see these trophy type events pursued by basic or pay-cable networks,” said Steve Mosko, president of Sony Television and an Academy board member. “There are only so many of these types of events and you’re going to see some major pieces taking a long, hard look at cable in the future. Fortunately, this deal worked out great for everyone.”