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Eye on the Emmys: Do Big Budgets Tip the Scales?

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Debating the worthiness of Emmy nominations is a major sport in Hollywood. One thing that continually riles some industry insiders is what they see as the uneven playing field created by expansive production budgets.

HBO’s “Angels in America” dominated last year’s miniseries category, for example, racking up 11 wins from its 24 nominations. But more than a few top industry executives grumbled that with 12 years of development and a $30 million price tag, “Angels” was able to compete at a level that its competitors could only dream of.

The issue isn’t confined to the miniseries category. The past success of HBO shows such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” highlights what some see as the advantages of the pay cable networks. They can focus on one or two signature series a season and take more time to produce a smaller run of episodes than the broadcast networks, which have more hours of original programming to fill and episode runs that often double those of cable series. In addition, pay cablers are not restricted by commercial breaks. And when it comes to content, cable networks face far fewer constraints in terms of language and violent or sexual story lines.

This year’s miniseries category could provide a test case. HBO has the heavyweight nominee in Paul Newman’s “Empire Falls,” a celebrity-laden, big-budget production. HBO declined to comment for this story, but executive producers for the other three nominees in the category-CBS’s musical biography “Elvis,” USA Network’s science-fiction epic “The 4400” and PBS’s period piece “The Lost Prince” from “Masterpiece Theater”-all downplayed production budgets as a competitive advantage when it comes to taking home an Emmy. Aside from the broad range in subject matter, this year’s nominees cover nearly the entire spectrum of network outlets, and therefore come from different budget and funding models: pay cable, ad-supported cable, broadcast network and public broadcasting.

David Janollari, who executive produced not only “Elvis” but also one of this year’s outstanding drama series nominees, “Six Feet Under,” has projects in Emmy consideration on both sides of the network-cable divide. He also was up against the “Angels” juggernaut last year as a producer for the miniseries “American Family.”

“Could ‘American Family,’ which was a small but wonderful piece on PBS, stand up to ‘Angels’ production value and star value? Probably not,” he said. “But I thought ‘Angels’ was spectacular and a work of genius.”

Mr. Janollari said he isn’t sure shows with bigger budgets attract more Emmy voters. “All the nominees are recognized for their creative work, and for being outstanding in their own right.”

He did concede that cable’s unfettered use of language and adult situations could have an impact on Emmy voters.

“It’s a very subjective process,” Mr. Janollari said. “People have subjective, emotional responses to any program. It is definitely possible that extreme violence and extreme language in any one show’s case could have an impact.”

The reason cable network projects deliver come Emmy time has more to do with the way cable networks generally develop series and miniseries and less to do with overall budgets and content restraints, said Maira Suro, executive producer on “The 4400” and partner in the production company Renegade 83.

“My experience has been in the cable world there are less layers of people to go through than at the networks,” she said. “The result is a little bit more creative freedom.”

Ms. Suro said “4400” was first developed for Fox as a one-hour series and was ultimately passed on by the broadcast network.

“USA thought there was an opportunity to launch it as an event,” she said, noting that the cable channel understood the project, which follows the experiences of 4,400 survivors of an apparent alien abduction, as a story less about science fiction and more a character study of people who found their lives interrupted.

“The show that is on the air is exactly the show we wanted to produce, and I don’t know if that would happen at the networks,” she said.

Anyone who feels budgets matter when it comes to viewer interest or winning awards, Ms. Suro said, should look to the film industry’s track record this summer, during which a number of big-budget, highly promoted films failed to interest audiences or critics.

“Just because you have more money doesn’t mean the project connects to people,” she said.

Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for “Masterpiece Theater” and “Mystery,” said she doesn’t think production budgets make a difference when it comes to getting nominated or winning an Emmy, but that promotional budgets, for both the initial broadcast and the awards campaign, do.

“That’s where the discrepancy is,” Ms. Eaton said, “the awareness factor.” She noted that without a huge ad campaign to drive viewers to the program, PBS product will always have a much smaller audience than the broadcast networks and cable channels, which can repeat programming over and over to drive up overall viewership.

“How many voting members saw ‘The Lost Prince’ in the first instance?” she asked. “That’s the difference, and I don’t think you’ll be able to regulate that.”