Cable shoots to score

Channels eye opportunities to earn their rewards

When it comes to the subject of cable and the Primetime Emmy Awards — as with the CableAce Awards — one truth remains evident: There is HBO, and then there is everybody else.

This will be the 10th year cable has been eligible for Emmys. During the previous nine years, cable has earned a combined 531 nominations. Of those, HBO claims 283 of them, well over 50% of the total. Cable has won 123 Emmys since gaining entry to the Emmy party in 1988. And HBO has taken home 77 of those, better than 60%.

HBO’s closest cable competitor on the Emmy front has been the Disney Channel, with a grand win total of 15, followed by TNT with nine. Not exactly parity.

Then again, no one seems to be complaining that HBO remains so dominant, now competing for the most wins among all of the networks (broadcast included). If you talk to executives in cable, they are inclined to give credit for paving the way, for giving the entire cable dial greater visibility and credibility in eyes of Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters.

But as the non-HBO cable world has discovered, there remains a huge gulf between the recognition that comes with nominations and the respect that accompanies wins.

Cable’s nominations total has increased yearly since 1987-88, when it claimed a mere 15, to the 125 it earned in 1995-96. And while last year’s 26 wins were a cable record, precious few come in the glamour categories (an exception being last year’s win for Rip Torn as top comedy series supporting actor for “The Larry Sanders Show,” that program’s lone win).

HBO and TNT now annually dominate the TV-movie and miniseries categories. But aside from the occasional performer and writer nominee, that’s pretty much it for cable (certainly non-HBO cable).

“You need first to make the distinction between premium cable and basic cable,” says Rod Perth, prexy for USA Networks Entertainment.

“It is HBO’s mission — and this is not a criticism — to have subscribers pay monthly to see the network. They are very shrewd about developing programs that have a certain HBO voice that are designed specifically to get recognized by the academy and get awards.

“They also know how to market themselves in a fantastic way. They’re just the best. They’re masters at it. It makes me jealous. It makes me nuts. But I certainly have no quibble with the number of Emmy nominations HBO receives.”

What Perth may have a quibble with however, is that the broadcast networks have a built-in advantage in that they are in-effect marketed to TV Academy members week after week by virtue of their ratings and platform.

“That’s why we may not see a ‘Duckman’ (a critically acclaimed USA Network cartoon) being recognized,” Perth believes. “We didn’t have the resources to package it slickly enough for the academy to notice it. That’s a lot of the battle.”

On the other hand, Perth adds, there is “no sense in the basic-cable community whining about it. It is what it is. It just seems incumbent upon us over time to recognize that all things aren’t fair in Awardsville.”

Lifetime Television prexy and CEO Doug McCormick agrees.

“We feel there is clearly a bias toward broadcast,” McCormick believes. “You know, old habits die hard. I had the best movie last year in (“Almost Perfect: The Jessica Savitch Story”) with Sela Ward. Tom Shales said in the Washington Post that it was one of the best docudramas ever made.

“It got nominated, but it didn’t win. Am I whining? Absolutely not. There can only be one winner, and it wouldn’t even have gotten made if it were up to one of the broadcast networks. But there remains this perception that the Emmys is still a broadcast night.”

Perth isn’t certain that’s true. But if it is, he figures, then perhaps cable has mostly itself to blame.

“You’ve got to come prepared to compete, and only recently has basic cable started to look prepared — us included,” Perth maintains. “OK, it isn’t a level playing field. That’s a given. I have to believe though, that if we started putting high-quality programs out there like we will next year with our miniseries ‘Moby Dick,’ the Emmy recognition will come.”

Agreeing with that assessment is Showtime programming prexy Jerry Offsay. While Showtime is, like HBO, a premium cabler, it has earned a total of just 28 nominations and five wins in its nine years of eligibility.

But that doesn’t much bother Offsay. To this point, he reasons, aside from HBO, cable hasn’t really deserved a lot of Emmys — nominations or wins.

“I think that as the quality of what we do improves, Emmys are likely to follow,” Offsay believes. “That process has started for a lot of cable networks, I believe, us included. It’s certainly that way for TNT, USA, Lifetime. And I think you’ll be seeing cable dominating the TV-movie category in the Emmys for years to come.”

And why is that?

“Because there are cable networks like ourselves and HBO that don’t mind spending substantially more money on projects than the networks will,” Offsay says. “The problem with the networks is that they have chosen to go after ratings at the expense of quality. How many times can you watch a story about a cheerleader who has an affair with her English teacher and they conspire to kill his wife so they can live happily ever after? We’ve seen that 57 times.”

In the other Emmy categories however, Offsay acknowledges that Showtime is “too early in our development as a quality player” to be offended by any perceived slight in the Emmys by the TV Academy.

“We’ve finally broken through with films like ‘Losing Chase’ and ‘Inside’ and ‘Hidden in America,’ ” Offsay says, “and if movies like ‘Bastard Out of Carolina’ (already nominated for DGA and SAG awards) and ‘Twilight of the Golds’ and ‘Mandela and de Klerk’ don’t get nominated for Emmys, I’ll be disappointed. We deserve to finally do better, and I think we will.”

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