Emmys look for new primetime home

With wheel deal expiring, Acad about to start negotiations

Once upon a time, networks fought over who had the right to air awards shows. Many kudocasts — namely the Oscars, Grammys and American Music Awards, all of which had their best performances in years in 2010 — have seen an uptick in ratings lately and are highly valued properties at their respective nets.

Before last year’s turnaround with Neil Patrick Harris as host, the Emmys had watched its ratings erode for years. So the question now is, as the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences negotiates a new contract for the telecast, will ratings continue to rise or was last year’s positive move an aberration? It’s an answer the broadcasters would love to know.

For the past eight years, the four broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC — have shared the show, each airing it on a Sunday night in fall or late summer.

That arrangement came to pass after ABC made an exclusive deal with ATAS in the ’90s, and the other broadcast nets screamed and swore that they would not allow any of their stars to participate. To salvage the situation, ATAS created the “wheel,” in which the four broadcast nets share the show in rotation.

With ratings declining, the networks are less eager to air the awards telecast, and they certainly aren’t eager to pay big license fees for it. The last eight-year deal earned $52 million for ATAS.

But the rub is that while the networks don’t want to shell out big bucks, neither do they want to allow the Emmys to go to cable. In 2002, premium cabler HBO, always the most nominated network, almost acquired the show, offering ATAS $50 million over five years in license fees. That was a steep increase from the $3 million annually the broadcast networks had been paying.

That was enough to make the broadcast nets balk, and also make clear that if the show went to HBO, they would not participate. If the broadcast nets weren’t happy about one of their network competitors getting exclusive rights to the show, they were even less happy about HBO — their biggest rival when it comes to the prestigious types of show Emmy loves — taking it over.

It’s that push and pull that will make for lively contract negotiations, which have yet to begin in earnest. It’s very likely a deal might not come before the Aug. 29 Emmys, which are being telecast on NBC.

At last year’s Television Critics Assn. confab, when talk about the new contract was brought up, HBO said it wasn’t interested in being part of the next pact.

If the kudocast is to stay on the broadcast side, some have argued the show would benefit by being on one network, where the broadcaster could nurture the show and treat it as a longtime family member rather than the stepchild treatment the current Emmys receive. This worked with the Oscars on ABC and Grammys on CBS.

For example, NBC will telecast the show this year in August, a few weeks before it normally airs because the Peacock offers the highly rated “Sunday Night Football” package beginning in early September. If NBC had the Emmys for the long run, it might have decided to find a more favorable place for the kudocast.

The networks, including cable, will also have to keep in mind that the Paley Center for Media is exploring its own award show to honor TV’s best, which could devalue the Emmys if it goes forward.

In the end, the broadcast networks may negotiate until the last minute and end up keeping the show. While ratings are down across the board, broadcast prime still aggregates media’s biggest audiences. That means the Emmys remain the premiere place to promote new fall programs to a broad viewership.

The Big Four might be willing to let Conan O’Brien go to cable, but they’ll be less inclined to part with Emmy.

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