After lean season, webs telepic chances slim

Having hit a low-water mark in 2003 with only three Emmy noms in the major longform categories between them — all belonging to CBS — the broadcast nets probably aren’t looking for a big turnaround this year in terms of mini and made-for acclaim.

As if to underline cable’s recent dominance over broadcast in longform, the webs’ most-anticipated project going into this past season, CBS’ “The Reagans,” was switched over to sibling pay channel Showtime because Eye officials were spooked by brewing controversey over the biopic’s content.

Meanwhile, such proven draws as Stephen King, whose minis usually generate strong ratings and Emmy attention, couldn’t turn up the longform heat for ABC this year. His “Kingdom Hospital” produced disappointing ratings (and no Emmy buzz in the mini or made-for areas, since the program is classified as a “limited series”).

Even when the webs did manage to shake things up in longform — as NBC did in May when its earthquake thriller “10.5” generated the biggest net made-for ratings in five years — the content was too light to loosen cable’s grip on the genre.

Could this be the year the broadcast nets fail to receive any Emmy nominations in longform?

Right now, hope seems to lie with CBS, the only broadcaster with a dedicated night for made-fors.

For its part, the Eye received noms for mini and supporting actor (Peter O’Toole) for “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” last year, but it might not have as strong a contender on its slate this time around. One of the better bets is “Blackwater Lightship,” a drama starring Angela Lansbury as a grandmother helping to care for an AIDS-stricken grandson and directed by the oft-nominated John Erman.

A nom could also come to Christine Lahti for starring in “The Book of Ruth” as an oppressive mother-in-law.

“It was a very good season for us,” says CBS senior VP of movies and minis Bela Bajaria, noting that the network’s Sunday night longform timeslot was up nearly 30% in households year to year.

Still, Bajaria acknowledges that projects with better “brand value” such as “Hitler: The Rise to Evil” — or “The Reagans,” for that matter — stand a little better chance of “cutting through the noise” and garnering Academy of Television Arts & Sciences attention.

Besides well-established subject matter, big ratings also help network miniseries and TV pics stand out among all the better financed and promoted cable competish, says Quinn Taylor, ABC minis and movies topper. “It helps if you can win your night and get additional press.”

But that dynamic works against such projects as ABC’s “Judas,” a biblical drama directed by two-time Emmy winner Tom Fontana that Taylor says is deserving of Academy consideration, but might not receive it because it was undersupported by its own network and wasn’t able to generate big ratings as a result.

Taylor — whose network, along with NBC, has relegated longform to a handful of projects flexibly scheduled into sweeps periods every season — says another lean year in terms of longform noms will be a bad thing for ABC, CBS and NBC.

“An Emmy certainly has its upside,” he says, citing increased interest in ABC-related made-for projects among creatives and advertisers alike after “Anne Frank: The Whole Story,” an outstanding miniseries winner in 2001.

“We can go to the upfronts and get a premium for a particular movie based on this kind of track record,” he says.

But even discounting the basic economic realities that have rendered the Emmy longform competition between the broadcast nets and cable channels into an apples-and-oranges comparison in many ways, the webs this year face the same daunting challenge everyone else has to contend with: HBO’s “Angels in America,” a miniseries many feel could sweep the major categories.

“We made a really good miniseries this year,” says Taylor, noting the American Indian coming-of-ager “Dreamkeeper.” “Would it ever beat ‘Angels?’ No. But for what it is it’s fantastic.”

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