One step away from cancellation

Series in rating distress discover as Emmy is an excellent way to extend life

So how much is an Emmy worth?

In cold, hard cash, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences says $250. But in reality, the golden girl is worth a lot more than that — especially for a good show seeking an audience.

“There’s an obvious and immediate value of winning a prestigious award,” says Robert Breech, a producer in the early 1990s on “Picket Fences” and now an exec producer on “The Practice.” “It draws immediate visibility to your show because of the added publicity, and it gives validation to a show as one that should be watched.”

In that respect, it could be said Emmys are no different than Oscars.

Certainly “Boys Don’t Cry” wouldn’t have garnered the attention it did if it weren’t for Hilary Swank’s actress nom and win, and picture statuettes are worth even more.

But not so fast, says NBC Entertainment chief Garth Ancier. “The Emmys don’t have those kinds of quantitative or qualitative measures. It’s more anecdotal than that.”

He’s quick to serve up examples of how Emmy boosts saved “Cheers” and “Hill Street Blues” but there are several other shows — “Picket Fences,” “The Practice,” “St. Elsewhere” and “thirtysomething” — which owe some of their Nielsen numbers to Emmy wins.

And “Cagney & Lacey,” the Eye’s female cop drama, was resuscitated with Tyne Daly’s Emmy in 1983 coming just months after CBS had canceled the show.

Unlike “Cagney,” “Hill Street Blues” didn’t need to be brought back to life by Emmy. Despite its sorry ratings after its bow in January 1981, NBC had written Capt. Frank Furillo and his officers a ticket for a second season before the show captured 21 Emmy noms that several weeks later resulted in eight statuettes.

“The network really believed in the show,” says creator Steven Bochco. “(Programming wizard) Fred Silverman predicted that we were going to sweep the Emmys and go on to be a big hit. There is no question those eight Emmys really put us on the map.”

Of course, having success on Emmy night can’t account for all the glory in “Hill Street’s” season-to-season jump from 87th to 27th in the Nielsens. Other factors included Bochco making the show more viewer-friendly (he tweaked the storyline so it was serialized in groups of three to four episodes instead of primary story arcs that lasted an entire season), plus the Peacock put “Hill Street” on a new beat — 10 p.m. Thursday — the same must-see slot held years later by “L.A. Law” and “ER.”

Similar situation

“The Practice’s” ratings rags to post-Emmy riches story has several intersections with “Hill Street’s.” It also languished in the Nielsens, bowing March 1997 on Tuesday nights, jumping four months later to Saturday, and moving again to Monday in January 1998.

Then came Emmy … and yet another new night on the Alphabet sked (Sunday). After grabbing the drama award, “The Practice” jumped 48 slots in the Nielsens Since then its ratings fortune has climbed even higher (to No. 8 in the recently wrapped season) with an edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” as a lead-in.

While Emmy and Regis Philbin have proved their ability to deliver an audience, “It’s your work that has to hold them,” exec producer Breech says. “We have succeeded in holding those viewers.”

However , Emmy winnings don’t always translate into ratings success.

“Taxi,” a darling of the nation’s TV critics, enjoyed its best Nielsen performance before it was even nominated for its first Emmy. It was a downhill ratings march from there, despite being named TV’s best comedy in each of its first three years on ABC.

“The awards don’t help you make a decision whether to buy a show or not,” Ancier says. “All you can hope for is that a show would be recognized by peers, and thus the audience. But if a show is not one the public wants to watch, it can win all the acclaim in the world and the audience still won’t warm up to it.”

Should that happen, it makes it all the tougher for a net to cancel it, says Breech. His seven Emmys include the ones he earned working four seasons on “Picket Fences,” called by some the best series nobody ever saw.

“If a show was receiving a number of critical awards (but still couldn’t draw an aud), the network would pull the plug with a sense of, if not failure, at least strong lament for not being able to position it to spark an interest with the viewer,” Breech says. “It’s easy to give up on a poor show. You really hate to give up on a good one.”

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