Small shows reap big rewards

Awards give cablers breakthrough lift

Hollywood loves to congratulate itself.

Thus the town’s ever-flowing font of awards, everything from the Golden Trailers to the Genesis Awards for the positive depiction of pets.

In television, however, the fragmented viewing age has occasioned a nagging philo-sophical question along with the pats on the back: What exactly is an Emmy worth these days?

Historically, a win or even a nom could instantly resurrect a failing show. Repeated recognition over a decade-long run could cement a show’s exalted status.

Now that the Emmys have been nearly overrun by cable networks and their original series and features, the game has changed. The halo is less noticeable for the broadcast nets, especially because their top-rated offerings tend to be the most recognized by Emmy. A far bigger ratings upside remains for many cable shows.

Take FX series “The Shield,” which won a lead acting award for star Michael Chiklis in 2002, and was nominated for three other Emmys that same year.

“People had heard about our show but hadn’t seen it, and it’s still true to a certain degree. Being on FX is not the same as being on CBS,” says show creator Shawn Ryan. After the win, the show’s ratings for adults 18-49 went up 4% and men 18-34 increased 24%, though Ryan acknowledges it’s impossible to tie the rise directly to one factor.

Jeff Wachtel, executive vice president of series and long-form programming at USA, which won a lead actor Emmy for “Monk” star Tony Shalhoub and one for theme music in 2003, had a show that earned an average rating of 3.4 before its Emmy exposure.

“There’s no doubt that the tens of millions of people who saw Tony Shalhoub accept an Emmy said, ‘What’s this all about?’ We came back to an extraordinarily good number. It was over a 4.2 rating, which is far and away (the best showing) for a basic cable show ever.”

Wachtel notes that it’s hard to separate the impact of one particular award. “(The Emmy) was an element in (our increased success). The reruns on ABC, the fact that Tony was nominated for and won three awards — the SAG award, the Golden Globe, the Emmy in one year — the ancillary press that went along with that. It’s all something that floats the boat.”

Winning an Emmy can also help define a cable network altogether, Ryan says.

“In some ways it meant more to (FX) than it did to the show,” he says. “It helped FX lure people to come work for them. I’ve heard (people involved with ‘Nip/Tuck’) talking about wanting to do the show at FX because (they’d) seen our show.”

On the network side, Lance Taylor, senior VP of current programming at ABC — where “The Practice” and “NYPD Blue” have been Emmy favorites, winning 11 and 20 statuettes, respectively — says winning an Emmy remains valuable for networks too, though it’s also hard to quantify.

“I don’t know if you see it immediately … (but) I think people look at the Emmys as the preeminent award, and it carries the connotation of quality. I think it makes (a show) something that we can point to as worthy of your time.”

Taylor adds that a show can get almost as much buzz if it’s not nominated and people think it should be.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of a show boosted from ratings flop to critical and commercial hit is Steven Bochco’s “Hill Street Blues,” which was nommed for 21 Emmys in its first season and won eight. “We went from being the lowest-rated show to getting picked up to being a top 20 hit, which we pretty much remained for seven years,” Bochco says.

By the time Bochco’s later series, “NYPD Blue” came along, the show was a hit from the start and its Emmy wins were more validation than lifejacket.

Bochco says the odds of repeating “Hill Street’s” success are slimmer these days because low-rated shows get canceled more quickly. But it still happens, as was the case with “The Practice,” whose ratings increased 27% in its second season, following its best drama series win in 1998.

When it comes to ratings, Craig Erwich, executive veep of programming at Fox, says, “Even the biggest shows — you get a 25 share show — there’s still 75% of the audience that’s not watching.”

In other words, there’s lots of potential for audience growth no matter where you are.

Though cable shows have cleaned up in recent years, their biggest hurdle is still in getting nominated, says Ryan.

“I was shocked that we were nominated for anything, and I guess what I mean is that there’s no requirement for voters to watch your show when they choose the nominees,” he says.

Once the nominations came in, however, “all the judges had to read the five nominated scripts, the judges had to watch the performances of all five actors. I knew once the people who were voting had seen it, we had a shot.”

Winning an Emmy, he believes, made FX have greater faith — though he’s quick to note it was supportive from the word “go.” “I wouldn’t say things changed, but I think people at the network had more confidence moving forward. There’s concern after the pilot: ‘Can you keep it working?’ ” he says.

For any show, winning can also be a double-edged sword. “It gives you confidence and a cushion, but … it also means that people are ready to talk about how the show’s quality has fallen off. There is a pressure,” says Ryan.

In the end, both sides — network and cable — say that some of the biggest rewards of winning an Emmy are intangible.

“Monk” executive producer David Hoberman says it added to confidence and inspiration. “Once you get an Emmy, you want to raise the bar up and up and up.”

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