When 'good' isn't good enough

For the Emmys, like the Oscars, the tension between art and commerce is no longer an academic proposition.

Basic cable series made a historic breakthrough in this year’s nominations, with two shows that almost didn’t earn renewal due to modest ratings, AMC’s “Mad Men” and FX’s “Damages,” landing best-drama recognition. All of which only feeds concerns that viewers who do tune in will say “Mad who?” and “Dam what?,” before promptly tuning out again.

Then again, even broadcasters aren’t contributing much in stocking the upcoming Emmy telecast — which will air in September on ABC — with popular standouts. Last year’s comedy winner “30 Rock,” for example, remains what amounts to a cult confection compared with TV’s highest-rated series.

The 2007 Emmys registered a little over 13 million viewers, a 17-year low. That would seem worse if the most recent Academy Awards — populated by indie darlings — hadn’t notched a record-low audience of 32 million.

Many of this year’s TV nominees are wonderfully produced, and you wouldn’t want to change a frame of them. But that hasn’t prevented the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences from twisting the Emmys in sundry directions, trying to inspire an audience that might lack rooting interest in the outcome to keep watching.

Such is the price of fragmentation, one that has taken a toll on award shows across the board. The changes initiated to offset that trend remind us that the Emmys are more than just a pro bono showcase to advance excellence in television, whatever the Academy’s website might say.

The major networks share the broadcast on a rotating basis, paying an annual license fee of $7.5 million under an eight-year deal that expires in 2010. As a result, they have an incentive to draw an audience big enough to keep ad rates high.

At the TV Critics Assn. tour prior to the nominations, ABC Entertainment prez Steve McPherson acknowledged that the major broadcasters play a different game than niche cable channels. Premium services, in particular, can sustain shows based largely on the critical acclaim and prestige (often in the form of awards) they bring — a strategy HBO has employed for years that Showtime has adopted with gusto.

Even so, hosting a party that serves to promote other people’s programs adds a bit of insult to injury, especially if said shows also have the effect of diminishing ratings. And with basic cable proving its ability to compete on premium turf, the intruders crashing the networks’ broadcast only promises to keep growing.

Because the Emmys and Oscars find it increasingly difficult to leverage suspense regarding “who wins” as a marketing tool — why care if you’ve never seen “Dexter”? — “who’s there” and what they’re wearing have assumed disproportionate significance. Fashionistas now descend on these award showcases, analyzing style with techniques once reserved for examining how a receiver got open for a touchdown during the Super Bowl.

Tinkering with the awards themselves offers a small solution. This year marks the inclusion of reality TV host, a new category adding personalities associated with some of TV’s top-rated programs — “American Idol’s” Ryan Seacrest, “Dancing With the Stars’ ” emcee Tom Bergeron, “Survivor’s” Jeff Probst — into the mix.

The reality facing award shows is that the cream of the creative crop frequently possesses less commercial heft, leaving a few seemingly distasteful choices: Vamp up the shows, at the risk of undermining their reason for being; alter the selection process to foster more recognition of popularity than excellence; or leave the shows alone, and perhaps see ratings shrink further.

So far, nobody has offered a terrific solution, in part because there might not be one. The ultimate challenge, though, is to find a compromise that maintains a level of integrity without letting those red carpets leave behind a trail of red ink.

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