Emmys’ wheel of misfortune

What combination of nets will carry show beginning in 2011?

After years of playing the field, the Emmys, at sixtysomething, should seriously consider settling down.

For years, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has operated under a wheel, in which the show rotates among the four major broadcasters. Yet with that contract expiring after August’s presentation, the organization faces an uncertain future — with the Daytime Emmys, relegated to a time-buy deal Sunday on CBS, offering a cautionary tale of an awards show spiraling toward irrelevance.

So wrapped up in the annual “who will win/who should win” speculation is another Emmy mystery — namely, what combination of networks will carry the show beginning in 2011?

While past efforts to break from the network-sharing tradition have produced howls and even boycott threats, there’s a strong argument for a single-channel relationship, as is the case with every other major award. Indeed, while the Super Bowl happily rotates among multiple networks, it’s sort of the exception that proves the merits of monogamy in TV endeavors, including NBC’s Golden Globes patronage and CBS’ longtime Grammy and Tony ties.

Granted, the idea of a solo deal has always met with fierce resistance. But circumstances have changed since the Academy got in bed with Fox in the 1980s or subsequently sought a regular home at ABC. In both instances, other broadcasters protested that the awards belonged to the industry as a whole, pledging not to attend or threatening to counterprogram the hell out of them.

What’s different now? Plenty.

For starters, the major networks have often become supporting players in the Emmy telecast by virtue of cable’s prominence in the balloting. Giving one of them a perennial investment in the show — regardless of how many trophies it collects — would soften the blow of airing what has been ruefully dubbed a “three-hour commercial for HBO” (or maybe Showtime, FX and AMC).

The good news/bad news is the Emmy probably doesn’t command quite the attention it once did. Hollywood’s denizens are always drawn to shiny objects, but the “It belongs to all of us” mentality doesn’t seem as deeply ingrained within newer generations who — buffeted by a deluge of awards — see Emmy night as another reason to put on a nice dress or tuxedo.

A one-network deal would enhance the TV partner’s incentive to promote the show (perhaps on cable siblings as well), knowing the Emmys would be back year after year. By contrast, solid ratings under the wheel merely profit the next spoke, since another network sells ad time based on the previous year’s performance.

In addition, a semi-permanent network home could feature its own talent in a way that would mitigate inevitable grumbling when the designated broadcaster tries selecting a host named Jimmy (as in Fallon, this year’s emcee, or Kimmel, proposed in the past) who isn’t necessarily a top-of-mind choice within Academy circles.

Of course, the assumption is ATAS will have to settle for less than the $52 million the organization earned under its soon-to-expire eight-year contract. But even with a financial hit, the intangible benefits of securing a stable TV wife, as it were, could leave the group ahead over the long run.

Of course, even such an arrangement won’t address the Academy’s institutional problems. Those were exemplified by last year’s messy, mishandled and finally aborted attempt to “time-shift” certain awards in an effort to streamline the telecast, irking the influential talent guilds.

Other issues include an ATAS hierarchy that has frustrated some senior executives enough to prompt development of a separate awards showcase with the Paley Center. That’s in part because the Academy has lacked high-powered leadership and remains structurally unwieldy, consisting of 28 branches — from animation to writers, and everything in between — whose disparate, sometimes conflicting interests can make California’s dysfunctional legislature look relatively serene.

For all that, the bottom line is people still like the prestige of winning Emmys, and the statuette means something. So it behooves all parties to set pettiness aside and ensure the telecast matters, too.

It won’t be easy, but such a resolution is possible. If the Emmys want to run more smoothly in the future, then stop spinning the wheel.

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