Award shows on ratings upswing

Success dependent upon breakout material

Just a couple of award seasons ago, networks struggled with lackluster ratings for kudocasts and viewers balked at the repetitive nature of what was commonly thought to be a trophy glut.

But even if it seems like Hollywood spends most of its time honoring itself, the networks are far from hitting their limit on award shows. In fact, boosted by improved ratings for the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys, and with high hopes for improved numbers for this year’s Golden Globes, some networks are looking for more kudofests, or even to create their own.

It’s something we’re contemplating,” says Paul Telegdy, head of alternative programming for NBC, which will have the Golden Globes and Emmys this year. “There are awards areas that are underserved, and we’re definitely looking at all opportunities very seriously.”

Other shows are making changes in efforts to capitalize on the apparent renewed interest in kudocasts. In a departure from recent years, the Jan. 17 Golden Globes on NBC will feature a host — Ricky Gervais. The Independent Spirit Awards, held the weekend of the Oscars and shown on IFC, will receive a high-profile move from Santa Monica beach to the L.A. Live complex in downtown Los Angeles, and it will be held on Friday evening rather than Saturday.

One reason Telegdy is anticipating a strong number for the Globes — besides the addition of Gervais as emcee — is that in tough economic times, audiences are content to watch television rather than spend entertainment dollars outside the home.

People are rallying around the familiar,” says Telegdy.

Adds Jeff Margolis, exec producer of the SAG Awards: “Everyone is looking for family entertainment shows. These awards shows have something for everybody.”

The Globes should draw ratings that will put smiles on the faces of beleaguered Peacock execs; 14.6 million viewers tuned in last year, which is way down from the 2004 high of 26.8 million — but still good enough for Telegdy to try to land more kudocasts.

But there aren’t many available.

ABC has had a contract for the Oscars since 1976 with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and is signed through 2014, while CBS has been broadcasting the Grammys since 1973 and has no urge to let the ceremony slip away.

There are few great awards franchises available because they don’t come up too often,” Telegdy says.

The Nov. 22 American Music Awards, which drew 14.2 million viewers, just finished its contract with ABC and would be a coup. The net is negotiating to reup and is hoping to put a deal together soon, but other networks may have an opportunity to negotiate as well.

Some awards shows, of course, never jell. The TV Guide Awards ran for only three years (1999-2001) before fading from existence, and the American Movie Awards was an early 1980s bust. More recently, the American Film Institute got into the awards game with the AFI Awards in 2002, broadcast on CBS. The show didn’t catch on, however, and was quickly dismissed.

What’s boosted the fortunes of some kudocasts, network execs say, is less the competition and more the shows themselves. The AMAs offer little in the way of award recognition, but the telecast is known for its rat-a-tat performances by a handful of popular artists.

This year the perf of Adam Lambert triggered controversy when he kissed a male keyboard player. Although ABC, reflecting viewer complaints, booted him from an appearance on “Good Morning America,” the award show generated the kind of spontaneous buzz and chatter that any producer would want.

The audience doesn’t really care who wins,” says Jack Sussman, head of specials for CBS. “You look back at the Grammys and you ask anyone, ‘Who won album of the year?’ and nobody can tell you. What they will say, however, is that Prince opened the show and Beyonce blew the roof off the place.”

Sussman adds that collaboration between producer, organization and network is critical.

We’re in this together to make it an event for television,” he explains. “They call them specials for a reason, and if they’re not making them special, then don’t do them.”

Orly Adelson of Dick Clark Prods., which produces the American Music Awards, says marketing efforts began two months before the show, with an extensive campaign through social media.

The Oscars saw a ratings uptick in February as Hugh Jackman sung and danced his way well enough for those inside the Kodak Theater and television auds, with 36.3 million tuning in — more than 4 million than the year before. There’s no analytical way to determine why certain awards shows rise or fall in viewership, but Jackman received strong reviews and was also coming off positive sentiment as three-time Tony Awards host.

This season’s Oscars are still three months away, but new producers Adam Shankman and Bill Mechanic have wasted little time in announcing their hosts: Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin.

The biggest change is that there are 10 best picture nominees this year. Vicki Dummer, co-head of alternative programming at ABC, says that won’t alter the dynamic of the venerable broadcast.

I don’t think the whole show will be rethought,” she says. “We won’t retool the process for the 10 nominees, but it will make for an interesting challenge.”

Even a retooled Oscar broadcast will be the most-watched show on ABC this year. That’s why others nets continue to strive to purchase or create something that can generate nearly as much attention.

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