By Lee Alan Hill
Special to TelevisionWeek
Should the Sept. 18 telecast of the Primetime Emmy Awards buck the trend of TV award shows and actually gain in ratings and total audience this year, credit may well be given to the presence of hot broadcast network series such as “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” on the docket.
“The number of popular broadcast TV shows that are nominated should have a positive effect from a ratings standpoint,” said Dick Askin, chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “You have shows that have really captured the public in their first season, and you have actors from those shows competing against each other, which creates headlines and awareness for the show that hopefully translates into viewers.”
Jack Sussman, senior VP of specials for CBS Entertainment, noted, “We get the show once every four years, and we want to make the best of that chance. I think, perhaps, that people forget that the show is not for the industry. It’s for the audience.
“That said, the number of first-time nominees will help increase interest. But overall, we feel we have to put some more entertainment into the show, some more event into it.”
ATAS, as with all entertainment organizations that bestow awards, earns more in revenue from license fees and other proceeds from the event than from any other source. ATAS revenues from last year’s Emmy Awards telecast were $10.5 million-two-thirds of its total revenue-according to its 2004 annual report.
But Mr. Askin seems, if not resigned to the ratings decline, philosophical about it.
“Sure, it’s frustrating to work hard on putting on the best show possible and then see the ratings,” he said. “But the reality is that’s what the television business is these days. All awards shows have some erosion because of fragmentation. There are just so many alternate viewing choices.”
Some observers are not convinced that the new faces and nominations for broadcast TV shows will by themselves add much adrenaline to the Emmy telecast ratings.
“You have 11 nominations for ‘Arrested Development,’ and that says that the academy members are looking to shows that are trying to take the genre in a new way,” said Carolyn Finger, VP of research for TVTracker.com. “That’s valid. But at the same time, Fox is looking to the Emmy nominations to help find an audience for the series. You can’t be sure that because the academy members decided to honor an edgier show, rather than a more traditional model, that the viewers at home find this a reason to tune in.
“It’s the same with ‘Deadwood,'” she said. “It’s not a show that appeals to the masses; it’s a niche show. It’s a good thing and a deserving thing that the show and its star Ian McShane were nominated. It makes the critics happy. But again, will the viewers follow? With some of the nominations, it’s almost as if the academy should create a category called ‘The Best Show You’re Not Watching.'”
ATAS and CBS have enlisted Ken Ehrlich as executive producer of the telecast. Mr. Ehrlich is known as a longtime producer of “The Grammy Awards,” but also produced the Emmys telecast in 1980. That show is best remembered as the year television executives were enlisted to present awards as a strike by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists kept all but a handful of the medium’s stars away.
“I love these awards,” Mr. Ehrlich said, explaining his rationale for taking on the Emmys. “I think, more than any other award show that is on TV, it can be said to be for the viewers, because it honors the shows and stars they watch.
“But let’s be clear. The reality is you’re giving out 27, 28 awards in the course of three hours, and that’s a lot of awards for any show. So there have to be enough other elements-not to divert the viewer, but so that the show feels more brisk, more fun.”
CBS has a long history of collaboration on awards shows with Mr. Ehrlich, and Mr. Sussman insisted the network gave no list to him of what it wanted when the deal was made.
“When I was in the news business, I remember once interviewing some soldiers,” Mr. Sussman said. “They talked about what was called ‘zero-based budgeting.’ The idea behind that is, forget about your history and think about creating this for the first time.
“With Ken Ehrlich, we get who we think is the best event producer in television. If we indicated anything to him, it was that the slate is wide open,” he said. “Forget about the past Emmy telecasts, including our own. Let’s say you’re starting from scratch. What do you do?”
Mr. Ehrlich said his initial approach to this year’s telecast it is to add some tempo to the pacing, to get it moving faster.
“With all the award shows, you have to begin producing them knowing and accepting a few truisms,” he said. “There will be planned peaks and valleys, and there will be spontaneous peaks and valleys. You’re just creating the best road map you can.”
A Different Animal
While Mr. Ehrlich’s resume includes numerous Grammys telecasts, he cautioned that the Emmys are a different animal. “The Grammys are very different,” he said. “They come with the advantage of 17, 18 performances every year. In that regard they have an intrinsic entertainment value that awards for TV, and film for that matter, do not have.” Producing the telecast this year are Renato Basile and Michael Seligman, with Danette Herman as coordinating producer and executive in charge of production. Mr. Ehrlich has enlisted several longtime colleagues to work with him, including director Bruce Gowers and writers David Wild and Jon Macks.
Just over a month before the telecast, plans for the content of the show were still sketchy, but Mr. Ehrlich indicated that there would be “some homage to ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ on its last season. It deserves it, and I think everyone wants the show to have its moment.
“I think the [Emmys] show will benefit this year because there are some real horse races in the categories,” he said. “Having three actresses from ‘Desperate Housewives’ against each other, for example, could be a plus. How much you want to play on that, I’m not sure. But the audience knows that competition exists.”
It has yet to be determined to what extent CBS will market this year’s event as a different breed of Emmys telecast.
“Will we be reinventing the wheel? No,” Mr. Sussman said. “Are we confident we can have a better program? Yes.”