Cable Nets Catching Up

Aug 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Special to TelevisionWeek

Cable television, once the Rodney Dangerfield of the entertainment industry, is finally receiving a healthy dose of creative respect. For the 2003-04 Emmy Awards competition, 18 cable networks scored a total of 220 prime-time Emmy nominations, more than ever before. For the first time, cable collectively outperformed the broadcast nets, which together earned 206.

Granted, much of cable’s Emmy nominations tally consists of HBO’s record 124 nods. Still, insiders note that Emmy voters are paying more attention overall to cable.

Chalk up cable’s rise to years of steady investment in original cable programming, a willingness to tackle provocative subjects and skillful promotion on the part of companies that have become masters at attracting press and public attention with sometimes limited resources, observers across the network and cable spectrum say.

Many also point out that the broadcast networks have virtually ceded the TV movie arena to cable, which has responded by racking up unprecedented Emmy numbers in those categories.

Cable networks naturally appreciate the validation the Emmy nods bestow, even though there’s little immediate payback in the form of ratings hikes or increased advertising sales. Ultimately, Emmy recognition is a surefire way for cable networks to promote their brands, and a sign that distinctions between cable and broadcast-at least from a viewer’s perspective-are less relevant than ever before.

“People watch programs, not networks,” said Brian Hughes, supervisor of broadcast research at media buyer Magna Global USA in New York.

Cable has come a long way from its roots as an industry populated by underfunded enterprises airing broadcast reruns. In 2003, cable networks invested $12.6 billion in original programming-around 21/2 times the $5.01 billion of 1995, according to Kagan Media Research.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when cable networks had such a hard time getting creative recognition that the industry put on its own awards show. The National Academy of Cable Programming, housed within the Washington-based cable industry trade group National Cable & Telecommunications Association, started the Cable Ace Awards in 1979.

That ceremony was born out of frustration because the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences repeatedly ignored cable come Emmy time. “It was like cable wasn’t good enough to be honored by the Television Academy,” said Bob Greenblatt, president of entertainment at pay cable network Showtime.

By the 1980s pay cable was beginning to break through the Emmy nomination barrier with series such as Showtime’s “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and HBO’s “Tanner ’88.” Even basic cable started to get into the act with “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” which continued to earn nominations after being canceled by NBC and finding a home at Lifetime in the late ’80s.

In 1998 the cable industry took the highly unusual step of disbanding the Cable Ace Awards. “Original programming [on cable] became indistinguishable from broadcast, so we asked, Why are we spending so much time and effort and huge amount of resources?” said Barbara York, NCTA’s chief administrative officer and former executive director of the now-defunct National Academy of Cable Programming. “We were trying to draw lines when there were no lines.”

In recent years HBO has pulled away from the competition-both network and cable-in the number of Emmy nominations earned. (See separate story.) But the other cable channels have also raised their creative profiles with Academy voters.

In addition to HBO, five cable networks earned seven or more Emmy nominations this year: A&E, with 24; Showtime, 18; USA Network, nine; and Comedy Central and FX, seven each. Bravo, Nickelodeon, Sci Fi Channel and TNT received four nominations each; Cartoon Network, Discovery Channel and The History Channel, three; Lifetime, two; and AMC, Disney Channel, IFC and VHI, one.

“I was not surprised,” said Dan Davids, executive VP and general manager of The History Channel. “We’re in a very competitive television marketplace. All networks have ratcheted up their programming investments to compete, attract and satisfy our viewers.”

Cable networks have long demonstrated a knack for putting on programs the broadcast networks don’t or won’t do-beefing up their presence in the movie-of-the-week arena when broadcast outlets have nearly eliminated the form from their schedules, and airing shows with bold content that broadcast networks, which use public airwaves, won’t touch.

“Cable, wanting to be noticed, became a little bit more adventurous, a little bit more daring than the [broadcast] networks, in terms of subject material, language, situations,” said Trevor Walton, senior VP of original movies at Lifetime.

A&E’s original movie “Ike: Countdown to D-Day,” which got six nominations this year, was traditional in many respects, but the kind of project broadcast networks rarely do anymore. The surprise casting of Tom Selleck as World War II supreme commander Dwight D. Eisenhower drew media attention. A&E was also smart to run the film near the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, when public interest in the period was high.

“Nobody else was capitalizing on it,” said Bob DeBitetto, A&E’s senior VP of programming.

Lifetime’s Mr. Walton said his channel benefits from broadcast networks’ dearth of television movies and miniseries. This year it scored a nomination for outstanding supporting actress in a miniseries or movie for Anne Heche in “Gracie’s Choice.”

“Because of the kind of stories we tell, with strong, powerful female leads, I always hope we’ll get a nomination for performers in our movies,” Mr. Walton said. He said the network is sometimes able to use these nominations to help woo top talent, especially performers from the film world.

Then there’s the edgy content factor. Comedy Central’s seven nominations, its most ever in a single year, went to the much-talked-about “Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which earned nods for writing, direction and best show in its category, outstanding variety, music or comedy series; to “Chappelle’s Show,” which was recognized in the same three categories; and to the raunchy cartoon “South Park,” for outstanding animated program, less than an hour.

These shows were helped by their overall quality, to be sure, but also by the attention they attracted because there’s nothing quite like them on broadcast TV, said Lauren Corrao, senior VP of original programming at Comedy Central.

The same principle helped Showtime rack up 18 nominations this year. Seven of those went to the controversial original movie “The Reagans,” which landed at the pay cable network after advocacy groups, concerned that the movie would be unfair to Republican icon President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, pressured Viacom sister company CBS to not air the film.

“We can do something that other networks can’t do, and that tends to get attention,” said Showtime’s Mr. Greenblatt.