SAG's contract with TNT expires with Saturday's airing

Only the Golden Globes ceremony equals the star power of the SAG Awards, with both the film and TV communities getting together to congratulate themselves.

Seemingly, that would make for a ratings boom, as its rare for audiences to get to see the likes of James Gandolfini mingling with Leonardo DiCaprio.

But the unexpected poor ratings of the Globes have put a crimp in the thinking that these types of kudocasts are a sure thing. This puts an interesting spin on SAG’s TV contract. The guild is in the last year of a four-year deal with TNT.

While the value of the current deal is unknown, SAG earned just over $1.2 million from the 2003 show, in which a huge percentage of that amount is broadcast fees.

“I can’t imagine a broadcast network would pick up an award show right now, when the Emmys are undergoing a makeover and the (2005) Golden Globes didn’t do well,” says cable programming consultant Ray Solley. “There’s just a general malaise about award shows that frankly I’m surprised by, because award shows are always good for vicarious participation.”

The SAG Awards premiered on NBC in 1995 before moving to TNT in 1998. The latest contract expires with Saturday’s airing, but there are signs pointing to a renewal.

Kathy Connell, producer on all 11 SAG kudocasts, would not comment on contract talks, but does not sound like someone whose event was desperate to escape its current patron.

“TNT has had the philosophy that they’re there to support SAG but not interfere in the daily workings of putting the show together,” Connell says. “They give us so much creative freedom, which is highly unusual.”

Adds Steve Koonin, TNT exec VP and chief operating officer: “We’ve got a love fest with these guys.”

Commitments by ABC to the Oscars and NBC to the Golden Globes effectively limit broadcast outlets for the SAG Awards. CBS, which hosts the People’s Choice Awards (and the Grammys), declined to comment about its interest before the expiration of the SAG-TNT deal.

A few years ago, the Eye seemed interested in getting into the movie kudos game — their highest-rated award show is the Grammys — but the net got burned on the American Film Institute Awards, which was killed after only one year.

The other serious player might be Fox, which could be looking to break into the bigscreen kudofest game. But there appears to be little momentum in that direction.

“We have not been approached by the SAG Awards committee to determine interest in the awards. We haven’t even been called,” says Fox spokesman Scott Grogan. “I wouldn’t even speculate on it. It would depend on so many things.”

The SAG kudocast does offer several dimples to seduce the major nets. The show runs a tight two hours, often serves as a bellwether for the Oscars and, perhaps above all, gives auds the celebrities they crave.

“It guarantees a certain level of glitz and glamour,” Solley says, “a certain level of showbiz credibility, visibility for the cable company in the community it’s trying to court.”

However, while the SAG Awards’ ratings increased from 3.71 million viewers in 2002 to 4.76 million in 2003, the numbers fell 31% last year. Koonin invokes that classic court plea: guilty with an explanation. “I like to joke and say that we know the license tag of the truck that hit us,” Koonin says. “It was the grand finale of ‘Sex and the City.’ “

Even with the kudocast’s move this year from Sunday to Saturday, a night when a share of its natural audience will be out at the movies (the show needs to air on a weekend to accommodate actor shooting schedules), Koonin and Connell are looking for positive signs in the ratings.

The move to the night also will keep SAG away from the ratings behemoth known as “Desperate Housewives,” which outdrew the Globes.

Independent observers such as Brad Adgate, senior VP and director of research for Horizon Media, hold out the possibility of the show moving to a broadcast outlet, but generally don’t believe that the SAG Awards will make a dramatic enough statement to leave cable.

“The networks certainly have their share of award shows,” Adgate says. “In fact, ABC dropped ‘Miss America’ because the ratings started dwindling.”

Until the perceived glut of award shows self-corrects — a glut that Adgate speculates is compounded by the surplus of reality programming, the awards show’s cousin in unscriptedness — there might not be any reason for TNT to discontinue as the SAG Awards’ top prize.

“TNT has been very supportive to us in all ways,” Connell says. “They understand this is not just another TV show to us.”

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