As award show's ratings dip, pay nets emerge

After years of rotating among the four broadcast networks, could it finally be time for the Emmy “wheel” to plot a new course?

Under the current telecast agreement, each of the four networks takes turns in broadcasting the Emmys. This year, ABC will air the Sept. 21 kudocast from the Nokia Theater, followed by CBS in 2009 and NBC in 2010. That arrangement isn’t likely to change when the contract with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences expires in 2010.

But this year’s ballot introduces a new wrinkle: With FX scoring with “Damages” and AMC’s “Mad Men” becoming the first basic-cable show to receive more Emmy drama nominations than its broadcast brethren in a single year, basic cable might want to think about having a say in broadcasting the Emmys.

Most likely, discussions will begin next year for the next licensing agreement, which typically lasts eight years. If given the opportunity, AMC, FX and USA Network would all welcome the opportunity to televise the show, say representatives from each net.The price won’t be cheap, however. The agreement signed in 2003 calls for a $5.5 million license fee from 2003-06, and $7.5 million from 2007-10.

One might assume the price for the next agreement will go up, but that’s not necessarily a certainty.

Emmy ratings have taken some big hits over the past few years, but nothing compared with 2007, when they dropped substantially. In 2005, 18.6 million viewers tuned in to see the Emmys on NBC. Last year, only 12.9 watched the show on Fox — a whopping 31% decline.

The reasons are many, with no one particular cause at the top of the list, but certainly the trend of cable shows and their actors/actresses receiving more nominations every year (from both basic and pay channels) means fewer people are actually seeing these programs, since cable reaches far fewer households than broadcast.

A look at last year’s nominees and winners indicates cable’s ascension into the Emmy ranks is only growing.

Ricky Gervais of HBO took home the comedy actor prize, defeating rivals including Charlie Sheen of CBS’ “Two and a Half Men,” a show that crushes “Extras” in viewer totals; Robert Duvall won for AMC’s “Broken Trail”; and in the biggest categories, “The Sopranos” won top drama, while ratings-challenged “30 Rock” was tabbed best comedy, despite its position as the least watched of the broadcast nominees in that category.

So what better time for cable to come in to bring the show to its airwaves?

“Yeah, sure, we’d go for it if it were available,” says FX topper John Landgraf. “I imagine our broadcast could be similar to what the SAG Awards get,” he estimates, referring to another major kudocast that made the jump to cable.

The SAG Awards have been airing on TNT since 1998 and have simulcast the show with Turner sister station TBS the last two years. In 2007, the show attracted 6.1 million viewers, less than half the figure that tuned in to Fox’s Emmy telecast.

And at the end of the day, attracting the largest possible audience is the TV Academy’s top priority — and cablers will be hard-pressed to match broadcast numbers.

The org is hesitant to discuss even the possibility of rethinking the wheel, issuing this statement: “One of the Academy’s greatest assets is the presentation of the Primetime Emmy Awards, which we believe has great value to the Academy and the public.  As far as any discussions pertaining to the licensing agreement, it is very premature to comment at this time.”

Clearly, the TV Acad would like to see the show stay on broadcast, where it can draw more viewers.

The broadcast nets are gun-shy as well to discuss having a signature awards show leave their domain, but if more and more nominations are heading to cable and viewership for the kudocast is on the decline anyway, then there might not be that much of a downside to letting it go.

With the Oscars scoring 32 million viewers on ABC this year, and the Grammys 17.5 million viewers on CBS — low numbers for both kudocasts — the desire for the broadcast nets to maintain a stronghold on a falling Emmys in the next decade might not be all that great.

So now may be an opportune time for basic cable to swoop in. But, if change isn’t in the cards, nets such as AMC are content to be invited to the party.

Says Joel Stillerman, senior VP of original programming at AMC: “Exposure at the Emmys is tremendous, as it means you are in the company of the best television has to offer. To be recognized with 20 nominations is a milestone moment for AMC. Each year the Emmys are an event, and to be part of that in some way is an honor.”

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