Chuck Ross

Now That I’m on a Roll, Here’s What The Primetime Emmys Need to Do to Survive

Aug 13, 2009

Yesterday I wrote about what Fox should do about replacing Paula Abdul on “American Idol.”

Having solved that crisis, I now feel it’s my duty to suggest to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) what it needs to do with its Primetime Emmy broadcast.

It seems inevitable that at some point most anyone connected with the TV business—or, for that matter, even a fan of a particular TV show—has a beef with the Emmys.

Usually the complaining is about someone or some show not getting nominated or winning, along with an exclamation that “I can’t believe” that a certain other person or other show did get a nomination or a win.

And depending upon where you are sitting, a lot of times the difference is between what many feel the Academy should be doing—honoring excellence—and honoring what’s popular. Yes, sometimes the two converge, which generally makes everyone happy, but many times they do not.

This basic dilemma between what is excellent and what is popular has now taken on a new dimension and could lead to a serious crisis for ATAS.

That’s because the major funding for ATAS comes from monies it gets in association with the Primetime Emmys. I’m told that if you add up the entry fees, the broadcast license fee and all the other revenues associated with the Primetime Emmys, you’ve got close to a whopping 75% of the monies ATAS brings in on an annual basis.

So the bottom line is that it’s essential for ATAS to have an Emmy broadcast that draws a decent rating. If not, the show’s value plummets, and its revenues suffer considerably.

Emmy officials have thought that one way they can increase ratings for the broadcast is by making it shorter. They claim that was behind their ill-fated attempt to force the time-shifting of eight awards—that if they cut out the walking to the podium by the winners the show’s pace would be quicker.

But that ain’t the problem guys.

The problem is that shows such as “Arrested Development” and “Mad Men”—excellent series both—very deservedly win Emmys. But not a lot of people watch those shows. So not a lot of folks have any interest in tuning into an Emmy broadcast that honors them.

Who amongst the subscribers to HBO and Showtime don’t love at least one or two of their great original programs? And HBO’s mini-series about John Adams was terrific and deserving of its multiple Emmys, but, come on, how many of us actually watched the entire mini-series? And most of us are in the business.

Unless the Emmy ceremony becomes more populist focused, it seems inevitable that the audience for its broadcast on the traditional networks will continue to dwindle.

So here’s my solution to this dilemma:

The Emmys should continue to honor excellence. It should not turn into the People’s Choice Awards. I applaud ATAS for the various changes it has made and continues to make as it strives to make sure that excellence is indeed rewarded. But every so often it takes its eyes off the prize and makes a decision that leads one to think it’s more interested in a popular choice rather than an excellent one, and I would urge ATAS to resist those inclinations.

Next time the Primetime Emmy broadcast comes up for license renewal, license it to cable. And license it to multiple networks. For example, maybe Time Warner will pony up, and show it on all of its HBO and Cinemax channels plus TBS, TNT and truTV.

Perhaps by licensing it to multiple cable outlets the cumulative monies ATAS will get will match what it typically gets from the broadcasters. But let’s assume it falls short.

How does ATAS make up the shortfall? This is where some outside-the-box thinking is necessary.

ATAS needs to produce another TV show, or series of shows.

The American Film Institute, for example, over the years, has produced shows on various movie themes. Maybe ATAS does something similar focusing on popular TV themed-material.

Maybe it produces some reality show.

Oh, oh, here’s one. Let’s say ATAS does indeed license the Emmy broadcast to Time Warner. If the show stays in September, how about a reality series leading up to the Emmy broadcast called “America Picks the Host of the Emmys.” The contestants could be the A-list of stand-up comedians who are connected with HBO—such as Robin Williams, Chris Rock and Margaret Cho.

“America Picks the Host of the Emmys” would air weekly, and, again, it could be shown on HBO, Cinemax, TNT, TBS and truTV. And America would vote for the winner as we do on a number of other reality shows.

And the runner-up could be the next Bachelor or Bachelorette. And if that runner-up is already married, so much the better. Come on, it’s Hollywood. How happy can that marriage be? And to make it even more interesting, we could give the Bachelor or Bachelorette the eight kids that used to belong to Jon and Kate, and…

Sorry about that. I got carried away.

But you get my drift here. The idea is to preserve the Emmys as awards that truly award excellence, and give our colleagues in the TV business their due. If that means the show is not watched by a mass audience—and it most likely does—so be it. Again, the awards themselves are not the popular People’s Choice Awards, and nor should they be.

But in order to preserve the Emmys there is no reason ATAS cannot produce other, money-making programming that is popular and can bring in the monies ATAS needs to preserve both the Emmys and the other great work it does in preservation and with its foundation.#


  1. Chuck: Very accurate piece. As to alternate Academy revenue that will make up the shortfall when the emmys get inevitably dumped from its broadcast platform in 2011….been there done that. The Archive of American Television is owned by the Academy Foundation and contains thousands of hours of interviews with TV’s greatest stars. We went out to every end-user with the best producers in the business attached to try and set up “specials” such as you suggest. Only TV Land (bless Larry and Sal’s commitment to community) even considered ponying up. Too many salutes, too many awards show, and very little interest in one-offs. As to your reality competition ingenuity, we’ll allow you to make THAT presentation to the Board of Govs!!! All the best, TPL (Past President of the Academy)

  2. They need to add a few more categories, since number of categories isn’t an issue. Best Drama on the Broadcast Networks, Best Comedy on the Broadcast Networks, etc. This will assure the masses get their fill and the ratings stay high. These categories are at least as relevant as a dozen others that they have and it will definitely help the ratings.

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