Clean sweep in comedy category gives networks hope

Thanks to a comedy comeback, the major networks have been at least temporarily spared the indignity of becoming the equivalent of uninvited guests at a party they’re hosting.

The four major networks stepped up in May to renew broadcast rights to TV’s preeminent awards show for eight years, despite past grumbling about the telecast becoming a three-hour commercial for HBO and other low-rated cable upstarts. Those complaints grew louder last year, when the pay channel ostentatiously swept all eight top awards in the movie/miniseries balloting.

The broadcast webs’ presence has steadily diminished in other major areas as well. Having long since abdicated any significant participation in the movie/miniseries arena, the networks are now being squeezed out of episodic drama. Only CBS’ “The Good Wife” and “Friday Night Lights” emerged as contenders — the latter an NBC show that never would have survived without a shared-platform deal with DirecTV. (AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” notably, wasn’t eligible this year, which might have opened up a slot.)

Overall, the total number of nominations for the Big Four plummeted from 214 in 2010 to 178. That was due largely to a sharp decline by ABC, though NBC was the only broadcaster — other than PBS, which increased its haul to 43 nods — to match last year’s tally.

Still, the clean sweep in comedy gives the networks something they can hang onto and in which they take pride — all four shared in the bounty — as they present an event devoted to celebrating TV’s best, having often been reminded the medium’s most-watched fare isn’t deemed worthy.

Not that the networks’ comedy coup will necessarily reduce pressure on the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to implement changes in the Emmycast’s format. As is, the organization moved after last year’s ceremony to combine movies and miniseries — a genre where only HBO and to a lesser degree PBS consistently mount real heavy hitters.

Network officials would also like to see more highlighting of reality TV. Yet while the genre pays the bills by encompassing some of TV’s most-watched programs, they don’t measure up quality-wise to scripted fare in the eyes of some old-guard academy members — reflecting an ongoing tension between the acad’s mandate to honor excellence and pressure to feature popular shows seeking to boost ratings.

Politically, the academy appears destined to face tough choices about the awards, and is likely handicapped in its dealings with the networks by a lack of senior executive leadership to facilitate necessary revisions and stave off more unpopular ones. That was clearly an issue two years ago, when CBS tried to streamline the ceremony by prerecording certain awards (or “time-shifting” them) and finally retreated after a near-revolt by the talent guilds.

The new Emmy deal includes a provision calling for the host network and academy to negotiate possible format changes every January. The academy was only spared such wrangling this year because the deal came together so late there was scant time for host Fox to orchestrate such an overhaul.

Of course, HBO has been exceptionally shrewd in its longform casting, making it hard to downplay the acting categories, at least, which feature such Oscar-nominated performers as Kate Winslet, Diane Lane, Melissa Leo, William Hurt and Paul Giamatti.

Nevertheless, going forward it’s inevitable some categories will either get crunched, as CBS sought to do, or completely removed from the main telecast. The only question is which network will brave undertaking the process and risk again triggering the guilds’ wrath.

Until then, the academy can afford to have a sunny outlook on Emmy night, just as their broadcast partners can feel a bit better about getting all dressed up for the occasion. But as they say on “Game of Thrones”: “Winter is coming.”

2011 EMMY NOMINATIONS
‘Mildred Pierce tops Emmy noms | Comedy to the rescue2011 Emmy nominations list (part I)
Emmy nominations list (part II) |
Road to the Emmys 2011

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