Quality TV doesn’t translate into Emmy nominations

Cable gets the win knocked out of it

John Landgraf echoes what many in the television industry have expressed at one time or another about awards in general.

“It’s pretty hard to say one TV show is the best,” says the FX net topper. “I have a personal dubiousness in declaring what is best in a particular category. It’s all about taste.”

Yet he doesn’t hesitate when the topic of broadcast nets vs. cable arises.

“In scripted television programming,” he explains, “in the absence of a clear winner and a clear market winner, the tendency is to go with incumbents. And the incumbents in this case are the broadcast networks and HBO.”

Cable has generated critical praise and audience kudos for the quality of its shows. It has attracted top-shelf talent, in front of the camera and behind. Most cable series have more creative freedom than network-run shows, and they operate at a more meticulous pace than broadcast.

But when it comes to the grand prize — outstanding drama series — HBO’s “The Sopranos” in 2004 stands as the only nonbroadcast show to win it.

“When you have 20 million people watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ the chances are better that a significant number of Academy members are part of that 20 million,” notes Rich Licata, head of corporate communications for Showtime. “That makes it much easier for ‘Grey’s’ to end up in the top five.”

Writer-producer James Manos Jr. has the distinction of having won both a CableACE Award (in 1994 for “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom”) and an Emmy (for the “College” episode of “The Sopranos” in 1999). He has worked steadily before and during the cable renaissance, and currently is executive producer of Showtime’s “Dexter.” He agrees that size matters when it comes to Emmy attention.

“The real issue has to do with subscriptions, which determine how broad an audience a show will get,” he says. “Showtime has less of an audience than HBO. HBO has won lots of awards, but it doesn’t mean Showtime is not as good. They (HBO) just have more subscribers.

“And broadcast has more of an ability to market their shows and advertise their shows. All of that plays into the nominations and wins, I think.”

Cable programming has certainly snagged individual nominations and wins in recent years. In 2002, Michael Chiklis of FX’s “The Shield” won lead actor in a drama series, and Alan Ball grabbed a directing Emmy for “Six Feet Under.” Blythe Danner nabbed back-to-back Emmys in the supporting actress category for Showtime’s “Huff” in 2005 and 2006.

James Duff, exec producer of TNT’s “The Closer” (which brought Kyra Sedgwick a lead actress nom last year), feels basic cable shows have an even more obstacle-laden path to Emmy’s red carpet because they haven’t yet acquired the same level of prestige as subscription cable series like HBO offers.

“One of the reasons basic-cable shows have not been nominated for Emmys and are oftentimes ignored,” he believes, “is because people don’t want to acknowledge that there is genuine competition on cable and genuinely great storytelling.

“We’re not going to be nominated,” he adds. “They don’t nominate basic-cable shows. They’re not ready to do that yet.”

Each show submits one episode for consideration. Last year, there was a popular vote among all of the approximately 13,400 voters, which whittled down the field so a blue-ribbon panel of Academy members could sit through an entire weekend, watch all the shows presented to them by the popular vote and then determine the top five.

But John Leverence, senior VP of awards at the Academy, explains there was a tweak in the voting process this year that will provide for an even split, so 50% of the outcome will be determined by a popular vote and the other 50% will come out of the blue-ribbon panel.

In other words, a show still has an advantage if voters in general watch it and are fans of it before the voting process even begins.

“Honestly, I don’t understand the Emmy process,” Duff says. “It’s so weird — how are we supposed to submit one episode that represents the whole show?”

Landgraf offered one observation that may sum up the process better than most.

“A lot of it is about luck and timing,” he says. “I always imagine in my own mind a nominee vs. a non-nominee, or an Emmy winner vs. a non-Emmy winner, separated by one vote or a small handful. So a certain amount of luck is involved.”

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