Undisputed Champion

Aug 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Special to TelevisionWeek

It has happened every year since 2001-HBO creams the competition in Emmy nominations. NBC, once the leader, has been the perennial No. 2 on the scorecard since the tables turned in 2001.

This year, HBO’s dominance is staggering-a record 124 nominations, nearly double the number collected by second-place NBC with 65.

Yet when the numbers are reconfigured, another story emerges. HBO scored 44 of its nominations for long-form programming while the broadcast networks received none whatsoever in that category. On a playing field without movies of the week or miniseries, HBO’s 80-to-65 lead over NBC is much more competitive.

“It’s pretty simple. We got out of the business of made-for-TV movies and miniseries. Once we got out, HBO got in in a major way,” said NBC Universal Television Group President Jeffrey Zucker. “They spend a tremendous amount of time and money campaigning for Emmy nominations. Not only do they produce movies and miniseries, they spend tens of millions of dollars campaigning. I don’t say that in any way that’s negative or jealous, just trying to explain the facts.”

As a rule, HBO does not comment about its accolades. The network declined to have any of its executives discuss the current crop of Emmy nominations for this story.

Change in Mission

But several theories have arisen as to what makes HBO such a powerhouse among Emmy voters-including the fact that the networks, particularly NBC and CBS-have gone to reality and franchise dramatic programming with four hours a week, starting in 2005, of “Law & Order” and three hours of “CSI.” While these shows do often reach a level of excellence, Emmy voters tend to lump them together and to some extent overlook them, the theory goes.

“It has to do with a sea change in the kind of mission statement the broadcast networks now have,” said David Milch, the creator, executive producer and writer of HBO’s first-year Western “Deadwood,” which picked up 11 nominations. Mr. Milch also created the perennial Emmy favorite “NYPD Blue” and wrote for “Hill Street Blues,” which snagged 21 Emmy nominations in its first season, 1981.

“I don’t know how successfully the networks would compete if they were as energetic as they used to be,” Mr. Milch said. “To some extent they’ve decided their audience is not one which demands or is interested in the kind of quality that is recognized by the Emmys.”

Mr. Zucker vehemently disagreed. “`The West Wing’ has been an outstanding drama winner many times,” he said. “There are no better dramas than `The West Wing,’ `ER,’ `Law & Order’ and [CBS’s] `CSI,’ quality programs that have 22 episodes.”

According to Mr. Milch, the philosophy at HBO has to do with supporting innovation in programming, made possible by a narrowcasting revenue model. “The economics and aesthetics don’t diverge in the way they might in the eyes of over-the-air programmers, who want to appeal to the broadest common denominator,” he said. “You may begin to dilute the characterization of quality programming with that.”

Yet even other cable nets that appeal to niche audiences, particularly Showtime, Lifetime and A&E, have not been able to break through and give HBO a run for the money when it comes to Emmy nominations.

“Compared to other cable networks, HBO has long been the darling of Television Academy voters,” said ATAS awards VP John Leverence. “But on the other hand, there was a big surge for Showtime, which went up to 18 nominations this year, with seven for `The Reagans.’ Still, it’s been very frustrating for them not to pick up nominations they’ve been hoping to get over the years.”

Another factor in the equation is the star power HBO brings to the table. “The other networks have stars, too,” but not to the same degree, said Mr. Leverence, who compared HBO to baseball’s New York Yankees. “When you have a lot of star power, you’re going to hit them out of the park,” he said.

Creating Stars

HBO can also be a star-making machine. After all, how much of the U.S. TV audience was familiar with James Gandolfini, Kim Cattrall or Larry David-as a performer, at least-before their shows hit it big? Emmy voters recognized HBO marquee programs like “The Sopranos” (20 nominations), “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (eight nominations), and the recently departed after six smash seasons “Sex and the City” (11 nominations). But it was the six-hour miniseries “Angels in America,” adapted from Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play, starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson-all of whom picked up acting nominations-that was the leader with 21 nods.

“I think because they don’t have opening weekends or sponsors to worry about, their agenda as a company is to make the best possible movie that they can,” said Celia Costas, who is nominated for an Emmy as co-producer of the program.

“Colin Callender, the studio head, was a real partner,” Ms. Costas said. “He dealt very closely with us. At the same time, he was not intrusive in any way. He was like a slightly stern but proud parent.”

On the series side, the production staff of Larry David’s half-hour comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” also raved about the working relationship with HBO.

“They create an environment that’s conducive for creative people. When we’re shooting `Curb,’ you don’t feel like you’re under the auspices of some group of executives who are overlooking and watching your every move,” said Bryan Gordon, who is nominated for the second year in a row for directing the program. “There is a sense when you’re working on `Curb’ that no one is conscious of the fact you’re involved in a huge moneymaking operation-you’re really out to do some very good work.”

Like Mr. Leverence, Mr. Gordon used a sports analogy to describe HBO’s management policy. “They hire good players, and they let them play ball,” he said.