Deconstructing the Emmys

Sep 29, 2003  •  Post A Comment

On the day after the Emmy Awards, network consultant Ray Solley of The Solley Group hosted a roundtable gathering of industry experts to discuss the show and determine the greater implications of the nominees and winners. What followed were debates on topics ranging from the snubbing of HBO’s “The Sopranos” for best drama to how “Joe Millionaire” makes academy members schizophrenic.
The panelists were Meryl Marshall-Daniels, former president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and producer of “Happily Ever After”; Vance Van Petten, executive director of the Producers Guild of America and former executive VP of business affairs at USA/Universal TV and Twentieth Television; Kevin Beggs, president of programming and production, Lions Gate TV; writer-producer J.D. Zeik (TNT pilot “Witchblade,” feature thriller “Ronin”); and Dr. Robert Kubey, director of the Center for Media Studies, associate professor of journalism at Rutgers University and author of “Creating Television.”
In a TelevisionWeek exclusive, here are highlights from the discussion.
Mr. Solley: What show do you think improved its chances with viewers, and maybe even with its network programmers, by winning on Emmy night?
Mr. Kubey: Given that I’d never seen `Monk,’ I discovered who this guy is. This is where a show hasn’t really gotten a lot of press, or enough press that I know about it. I’m much more likely to flip that show on.
Ms. Daniels: I agree. I think the other thing that happened is that there is an audience that discovered that there is good political comedy on the air. An older network audience that doesn’t think of Comedy Central as a place that they would go to. The segment Jon Stewart [of Comedy Central’s `The Daily Show With Jon Stewart’] did on the show, where he really took on TV news and took on Fox News. He then wins two Emmys. I think that was a very strong statement for him and for Comedy Central to an older audience that is missing political humor.
Mr. Solley: Is Comedy Central really going, `That’s great! Now we have older viewers who know about our show’?
Ms. Daniels: It’s credibility. But it’s also something else. I think we’re seeing more networks becoming like broadcasters on basic cable. TNT, A&E, now Comedy Central, may find themselves in that category, growing out of a niche and having, you know, broader sensibilities and stability in a broader audience.
Mr. Van Petten: We’ve not been successful in the past attaching the monetary impact to Emmy. This particular award show provides two opportunities to assess the value of an Emmy. I think `Monk’ absolutely will benefit from the award to Tony Shalhoub. I also think to a smaller degree-but more measurable-will be the impact the Emmy will have upon `Amazing Race.’ A reality show out of nowhere, never getting the really huge ratings, but all of a sudden gets an Emmy, beating `Survivor.’ I think there can be a comparison of the two. On the premiere, a few days ago, of the new `Survivor,’ you saw a drop-off of less than 10 percent for a launch of its new season. I’ll bet you, I think what will happen is `Amazing Race’ will actually have a better premiere than its premiere episode last year. And that would be direct evidence of the benefit of having an Emmy.
Mr. Solley: Does that theory hold true with Joe Pantoliano from `Sopranos,’ who won an Emmy for best supporting actor? He’s going onto CBS’s `The Handler,’ which premieres soon.
Mr. Van Petten: There is an effect, but there’s always been an inability to calculate the benefit. It’s comparing an individual’s win with the launch of a new series.
Mr. Zeik: It seems to me when you win an Oscar, what you get is more people to come to your movie. All they need to do is come once for you to see the impact of it. In TV, getting somebody to watch once, unfortunately, will result in only a one-time ratings spike.
Mr. Beggs: There’s no question in my mind that the academy and the industry are very uncomfortable with the reality genre and what to make of it. And you see that in that they didn’t have five nominees, yet they couldn’t just add `Joe Millionaire.’ So the ones that were nominated were `safe’ reality programs. The audience had to be thoroughly confused, because I was.
Ms. Daniels: You are correct for identifying schizophrenia in the academy about this reality category, because the concept of excellence as it has been interpreted over the years would not permit a `Paradise Island’ or a `Joe Millionaire’ to be interpreted as excellent. I think this area is certainly an expanding area for the audience, and the question is, `Are values part of what you use to decide whether a television show is excellent or not?’ And I don’t think there’s an agreed-upon answer to that.
Mr. Solley: Which explains Bravo winning the alternative reality category with Cirque du Soleil.
Ms. Daniels: Correct.
Mr. Kubey: I think you’re seeing fractures in the industry, which we know in five or 10 years were the beginning of the sea change in the industry. Because of what HBO has brought and [reality programming], you know, I think when people say `Gee, how did the networks lose so much audience?’ Of course, they’re going to lose a tremendous amount of audience! We’re seeing a new genre develop which has become really popular. The industry doesn’t even know how to treat it or whether to respect it. And you’ve got a rival network, HBO, which is getting a huge percentage of the kudos-and then [the academy] can’t give the Best Drama award to an HBO series! I think that’s strange, that the academy seems more than happy to point out James Gandolfini over and over as being really good, but can’t actually say his was the best drama.
Mr. Solley: The other juggernaut is basic cable. TNT was a juggernaut this year with `Door to Door.’ Does anybody in this group think that cable can build the schedule or a brand off the back of one-time-only movies and one-time-only miniseries, if you’re not pay cable?
Ms. Daniels: I think it’s difficult to build a schedule. You can build a brand. You can build a brand off of it, and that, I think, in effect, is what HBO did.
Mr. Van Petten: What Hallmark is doing now.
Mr. Beggs: Lifetime has a great movie brand.
Mr. Solley: It seems to me that `The Daily Show’ may in fact be one of the big winners out of [Emmy] night, in terms of perception and notoriety. With the rise of cable news, is network news no longer a sacred cow?
Ms. Daniels: Well, network news has invited it. I don’t know if anybody had seen the Fox bombs-set-to-music piece when it originally aired, but I did. To me, they took themselves to exactly where they arrived last night. Which is that news is no longer sacred in terms of it trying to convey information in an objective format as a clear source of information upon which policy can be made, decisions can be determined, people can cast votes. That’s not its role. Its role is to entertain and deliver profits to the bottom line, and that’s what’s left of it. I think there’s a price to be paid for that, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.
Mr. Kubey: CNBC and Fox and CNN are in the same ballpark with the standard network news sources. What’s happened is that the standards have been dragged down by commercial imperatives.
Mr. Solley: And proof that it’s the same ballpark is that the News and Documentary Emmy Award for outstanding coverage of a continuing news story went to CNBC, to Brian Williams. … At Peabody and the News and Documentary Emmy Awards, PBS still gets a lot of nominations, a lot of awards. There used to be a time when you would go to PBS to do your prestige project. My perception is now you take that same type project to HBO, to Showtime, to A&E, to TNT. Do you agree?
Mr. Zeik: Completely. I don’t think anyone’s ever suggested to me in the last number of years to take anything to PBS. Recently, I was talking to somebody about a book that I have a great passion for, to make into a film. `Oh no, it’s too difficult. Go to HBO, go to Showtime.’ None of my agents ever said, `Let’s think about doing this with PBS.’
Mr. Beggs:
I don’t even know who you’d call. I called once and tried to talk to somebody, and they said submit it to a panel of people. It’s ridiculous.
Mr. Solley: I read an article recently quoting an executive saying, `That network show is so good, it really belongs on cable.’ Do you think there is some credence to that, or do viewers not really know the difference and just surf through whatever is on the set?
Ms. Daniels: I think there’s commercial and noncommercial. There are programs that have commercials in them and children will always know as they grow ol der that there are some channels that don’t have commercials. But whether it’s broadcast or whether it’s cable or satellite is a meaningless distinction for the next generation.
Mr. Van Petten: I think on cable one hit show can do something for your network in the short term. Look what `The Shield’ did for FX. It put it on the map. `The Sopranos’ is already on the map, but it makes HBO an empire. The effect of a single show on network TV is seen in the long term, the way `Friends’ or `Seinfeld’ can make money forever.
Mr. Beggs: I think only one cable network is totally distinctive and that’s HBO. Now they are their own brand.
Mr. Van Petten: Bigger than ABC, CBS or NBC?
Mr. Beggs: They are the brand of, `If it’s on HBO, it must be good.’ `Carnivale’ numbers suggest that. If it’s on HBO, people are coming. They already have. It’s like NFL football on Monday night. They’re coming out of habit and loyalty.
Mr. Kubey: In drama, my sense is if it weren’t for `The West Wing,’ the standard old broadcast networks would really not have much to say for themselves in dramatic quality.
Mr. Van Petten: No, you’re wrong. That’s not fair. What about `CSI,’ `Law & Order’? It’s the golden age of drama that cuts across all TV venues. I think that I’ll put up `Law & Order,’ `CSI,’ any of those shows against `Sopranos.’
Mr. Kubey: I think you’re right, `CSI,’ `Law & Order,’ some of those shows are exceptionally well done. But on the other hand, `CSI’ is so formulaic, while it may have a tremendous run and make a ton of money for a long time, critically, ultimately, it won’t stand in the league with `Sopranos’ or `Six Feet Under.’ It can’t, it won’t, and nor will `Law & Order.’
Mr. Solley: Is there one program that you would call `show of the year’? The show that, looking back, 10 years from now, you’ll say, `This program in 2002-2003 was a tentpole, a turning point, and represented some kind of interesting, watershed event.’
Mr. Van Petten: I’ll venture out, bravely, to be cut down to my kneecaps: `Trading Spaces.’ I think that the viewers who watch traditional TV and those who would never look to TV for that kind of thing now find it actually enjoyable and addictive. What `Trading Spaces’ and reality TV has brought back to television is family viewing. Shows like `Friends’ have separated families for three, four, five years now; I will not let my daughters watch it.
Mr. Kubey: My choice for show of the year is `Joe Schmo’ on Spike. Not because it’s any tentpole or anything like that, but it undoes the reality genre. What they’re doing is so funny at poking holes in all the conventions that are in the reality genre. I find it an acerbic commentary on a genre that’s taken the industry by storm.
Ms. Daniels: Its funny, the show that I felt did something really interesting this year and gets totally overlooked is `The Wire’ on HBO.
Mr. Solley: Given the Emmy wins by `Everybody Loves Raymond,’ `West Wing,’ `Door to Door’ and, to some degree, “Spielberg’s Taken,” does this mark the end of `hip and edgy’?
Everyone: No.