When you are a network that relies on pledge breaks and corporate sponsorship for survival, the money left over to promote programs and individuals for Emmy consideration can probably fit in Kermit the Frog’s back pocket.
Yet PBS has managed to battle the big boys and stand tall in the race for the hallowed television trophies without benefit of the huge expenditures shelled out by free-to-air nets and the high-profile cable channels.
With very little money to spend, PBS garnered 15 noms. While this may pale in comparison with NBC’s front-running 82, it is astounding given the public net’s inability to shower voters with cassettes and promotional materials.
“We have Mobil, which underwrites ‘Masterpiece Theater,'” notes Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of the series, which this year delivered “Great Expectations” and “King Lear,” both of which were honored with noms.
“They have been quite generous in ad budgets. However, compared to the promotional ad budgets for commercial TV, which are on the order of a small African nation, we are chicken feed.
“The place we get the most mileage is in reviews,” Eaton says. “We put a lot of effort into that. I have to say that after 28 years of ‘Masterpiece Theater,’ the national press is inclined to pay attention to our programs. They tend to review us, and because of our quality, they tend to review us favorably.”
“Great Expectations” — a co-production from both the BBC and WGBH/Boston — was nominated in the miniseries category; three of the four other nominees are from the commercial nets (the other, “Horatio Hornblower,” appeared on cabler A&E).
“My personal belief,” Eaton says, “is that Dickens is ideally suited to TV because he wrote in serial fashion … in the rhythm of installments, which is perfect for TV.”
Among the other nominees, Ian Holm was tabbed for best lead actor in a miniseries or movie for his turn as “King Lear.” The other four nominees in this category all came from the cable nets.
Carole Feld, senior VP of communications and brand management for PBS, says her network benefits at Emmy time by a positive image already ingrained in American viewers.
“We do market research. People usually have eight to 10 channels they check out regularly on their TV,” she explains. “PBS is within that channel set. The majority of people who watch TV watch PBS at least one time per month.
“If you look at the awards we’ve won, we’ve swept the DuPonts and Peabodys, and that substantiates our quality programming. Most people have tried us and found something they like.”
Also, Feld says, just about everybody in the U.S. has access to PBS.
“We’re available to over 99% of television households,” she says. “We’re not cable; that makes a big difference. Thirty percent of people don’t get cable.”
That isn’t to say PBS rests on its hard-earned laurels. It just does what it can to promote its offerings.
Usually, in the case of special programs like “Great Expectations” or “King Lear,” stations in each market will do an on-air promotional blitz about 10 days beforehand. Of course, since PBS does not have as many opportunities for breaks in programming that exist on the commercial and cable nets, it can only do so much.
Also, PBS made sure to feature both “King Lear” and “Great Expectations” on its press tour. Holm and “King Lear” director Richard Eyre both attended.
“In terms of Ian Holm’s nomination,” Eaton says, “the Hollywood community and the American community, the people who vote for these, recognize actors like Ian who not only gives a brilliant performance, but also has a body of work. It’s a tip of the hat to his career.”
In an era where Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters are bombarded mercilessly with tapes and full-page ads, PBS’ list of nominations is especially impressive.
“It’s a real testament to the quality of work,” Eaton says. “I do feel this is such a hard game, so competitive. When something rises to the top, clearly because of its quality, your faith is reaffirmed that people still recognize quality. It’s not the result of extra marketing.”