It’s time for kudos to push the envelope please

THE AWARDS INDUSTRY is going through a significant realignment, attempting to shake off a nagging case of the Nielsen blahs. First the Oscars tinkered with their presentation, and now the Emmys are grappling with punting categories off the main broadcast to the technical awards kids’ table, ostensibly to streamline the proceedings.

What risks being lost in this push is the underlying mandate to honor worthy films and TV shows, which can seriously get in the way of ratings glory. After all, no self-respecting variety show would weigh down its merriment with acceptance speeches and humanitarian tributes, even during a PBS pledge drive.

A small reality check about reasonable remedies and improvements thus appears in order, before hindsight reveals that in the hell-bent quest for ratings, we’ve somehow expunged awards from award shows. Here are some observations to keep in mind:

  • On the plus side, the Oscars demonstrated that it’s possible to move the ratings needle by adjusting formats and talent. This year’s audience was both younger and more urban, doubtless fueled by the combination of Chris Rock’s hosting stint and Jamie Foxx’s anticipated best actor win for “Ray.”

In fact, remember the tumult Rock caused by joking that straight black guys didn’t watch the Oscars? Turns out he was right.

According to a breakout of Nielsen data, the percentage of African-American men age 18-34 watching this year’s telecast quadrupled compared with 2003 and ’04. That group averaged a 3.2 rating the past two years, vs. a 12.7 last month. In other words, the overwhelming majority of young black men, most of them straight, weren’t watching the Oscars.

Score that Rock, 1; Matt Drudge and peddlers of faux controversy, 0.

It wasn’t just men, though, who joined the party while others headed for the exit. Tune-in among young African-American women increased by more than 150%, as did overall viewing among adults 18-34, period. So yes, award shows can alter their profile, the tradeoff being that new wrinkles (pardon the expression) are likely to alienate segments of the traditional 50-plus audience — a bracket that not incidentally mirrors the membership of the film and TV academies.

The point here isn’t about dividing or uniting; it’s about tough choices on how to address a stratified, fragmented marketplace.

  • David Letterman’s one Oscar-hosting experience misfired, but that was a decade ago, and the CBS host deserves a rematch. More hip than Johnny Carson but an establishment figure at age 57, Letterman is savvy enough to learn from mistakes and, unlike most comics, a skilled broadcaster in the old-fashioned sense, potentially helping bridge the demographic gap.

Letterman hasn’t spoken to reporters since the Clinton administration, which makes ink-stained wretches love him all the more. Still, my guess is he’d relish the opportunity for redemption once he finished grumbling about it.

  • Although overhauling Emmy categories is probably overdue, let’s be honest about why it’s being proposed, and in this case it’s not all about ratings.

Still miffed over HBO’s dominance of the 2004 awards (for all we know, someone from “Angels in America” is collecting another statuette right now), the major networks threw their weight around and decided not to cede all that free promotional time to the pay channel.

So a committee to revamp the awards — weighted toward the networks, which have committed $52 million to share broadcast rights on a rotating basis — concluded that best reality series belonged in the main Emmycast, which it probably does, and most movie categories should be excised. Yet that’s a blow not just to HBO, but to Showtime, TNT, FX and those few surviving producers and execs tilling a field the majors have largely abandoned.

Granted, the self-serving politics don’t automatically mean shaking up the awards is illogical, but in terms of juicing the ratings, a few widely seen hits — ala “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” — will do more to reinvigorate the Emmys than any amount of category gerrymandering or pruning.

  • Finally, judging awards show ratings by a pre-cable yardstick ignores a changing landscape. As prestige movies and TV shows increasingly play to niche audiences, the public will inevitably lack the rooting interest it possessed when more people were apt to be familiar with nominees. Just as TV has evolved, then, expectations must be tempered accordingly.

If not, however well intentioned the innovations brought to these kudocasts are, the result could be that everyone loses.

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