For years, the popular response to the Emmys from network executives was that they were nice – an ego stroke to the talent, but inconsequential to the bottom line. Sure, there was that period in the ‘80s when NBC parlayed awards for shows like “Hill Street Blues” into audience boosts, but that had more to do with “The Cosby Show” helping lift all boats than people responding to awards.
Few execs were as outspoken as Don Ohlmeyer while he ran NBC in the 1990s, but he was hardly alone in dismissing praise from critics – whose tastes tend to provide some overlap with awards – as being almost utterly (or in his unique phrasing, udder-ly) useless.
Today, however, there’s a perceived value on prestige, one that HBO was obviously early to exploit, but which others have piled on as well. And that, as much as anything, has helped produce the embarrassment of riches the TV industry currently enjoys, as well as the concerted awards push from new players, including Showtime, AMC, FX and — beyond the traditional TV sphere — Netflix.
As HBO long ago realized, the promotional value of awards doesn’t just mollify and attract talent (although there’s that, too) but creates a patina of quality around the entire service. You don’t need to be a “Veep” aficionado or have watched “The Normal Heart” to recognize the pay service puts on high-class fare, which helps justify that monthly subscription fee.
Of course, if you’re not watching any of those shows, HBO will be hard-pressed to sustain your patronage for long. But the subscription model is built in part on creating an overall perception of worth that, in some respects, can be bigger than a single show or a lone viewing commitment.
The formula is slightly skewed for basic cable networks, but there’s a value there, too – if only because all the attention on “Mad Men” becomes a focal point for the media. So when AMC got into a skirmish with one of its carriers a few years ago, the “Carriage Dispute Threatens ‘Mad Men’” headlines were a lot easier to understand and digest than “U-Verse Customers Might be Deprived Network Formerly Known as American Movie Classics.”
Broadcasters still like to make the case that awards don’t necessarily translate into ratings, and like to cite the relatively puny numbers for a show like “Girls,” whose media heat is certainly vastly disproportionate to its tune-in levels. And they chafe, as practically everyone in TV has, at Netflix’s unwillingness to release viewing numbers, employing a “Trust us, it’s a hit” mentality that, like Jedi Mind Tricks, tend to work best on the weak-willed.
Still, as amorphous as the precise benefits might be, and as hard as they are to quantify, plenty of services have come to the conclusion they do exist. As proof, look no further than “Arrested Development,” a series that had won Emmys and been yanked because of low ratings when I broached this subject four years ago. Since then, Netflix has found the means and motivation to revive it.
So while it’s easy to dismiss award-season festivities as inflated and overblown, the old argument that taking home one of those winged statuettes is strictly ceremonial? In a pay-to-view world, it simply doesn’t fly.