AMC, FX leverage awards heat to lure auds

Premiering its second season July 27 amid an avalanche of positive press and just days after claiming 16 Emmy nominations, AMC’s “Man Men” saw its ratings more than double from its first-campaign average.

But while the nomination tally may have been unprecedented for a basic-cable show, the premiere episode’s actual total viewer count of 2 million doesn’t seem so transcendental.

The TV Academy’s strong affirmation may have served to bolster what has been one of the more gushing critical responses in TV history for the period drama set in Gotham’s ad world. But a number of TV biz watchers have already plied the stigma of “Arrested Development” to the AMC series.

The irregular Fox comedy was a critical and Emmy darling during a lifespan (2003-2006) that belied sparse viewer attention. It was nominated for the comedy series trophy all three of its seasons and even won the big prize once. Emmy acclaim kept Fox hopeful that “Development” would eventually arrest enough 18- to 49-year-olds to be considered economically viable, but it soon became apparent that awards weren’t going to be enough to make that happen.

Only 18 episodes into its lifespan, produced under a much different business model, and with more than half of season two still ahead of it, comparing “Mad Men” to “Arrested Development” seems unfair. But top execs for cable networks behind Emmy-acclaimed series are nearly unanimous in their opinion that, while their newfound awards acumen promises to do a lot of nice things, immediately yielding broadcast-sized audiences to low-rated basic-cable series probably isn’t one of them.

“I don’t think there’s any historically strong connection between awards consideration and winning an audience,” says John Landgraf, president and g.m. of FX, home of legal drama “Damages,” which was nominated for seven Emmys this year and is competing alongside “Mad Men” for drama series. “If a show has commercial potential but for whatever reason gets lost in the shuffle, then awards consideration might cause people to sample it and it can have an impact. ‘Hill Street Blues’ is a good example, but you’re going back a long time to find it.”

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of ratings growth that ties into Emmy nominations,” agrees David Bernath, senior VP of programming for Comedy Central, for which “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” has brought home the variety, musical or comedy series Emmy the last five years.

Star magnet

While substantial audience growth might not come along with the prize, basic-cable channel chiefs do believe Emmy has played a crucial role in their ability to attract the kind of talent necessary to make their original-series success occur rather quickly.

Ed Carroll, president of national entertainment services for AMC parent Rainbow Media, cites the 16 nominations and four trophies won in 2007 for miniseries “Broken Trail.” “We always viewed ‘Broken Trail’ as our first step into original programming,” he explains. “We had aspirations of going into series next, but the way ‘Broken Trail’ was received probably accelerated those efforts.”

Likewise, Landgraf calls Michael Chiklis’ dramatic actor trophy in 2002 for “The Shield” a “watershed” event for FX, cementing the network’s status in the creative community as a “place you might get noticed” beyond the broadcast webs and HBO.

Another benefit: With cable Emmy contenders often dealing in content that sponsors find sensitive, awards acclaim acts as “validation to advertisers,” Landgraf says.

“It’s part of how we pitch the shows,” Bernath agrees. “(Stephen) Colbert has won a Peabody. So has Jon (Stewart), and our sales guys definitely use that.”

With these reasons in mind, AMC and FX will continue to tout their landmark Emmy nomination counts in both on-air and print promos.

“We already have spots that reference the (nominations) success of ‘Mad Men,’ and you’ll see even more of that as we get closer to the Emmys and it becomes more of a consumer event rather than a trade event,” Carroll says.

“If we’re extraordinarily lucky enough to win,” Landgraf adds, “we’ll flog that for all it’s worth.”

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