Basic instincts

Cablers view Emmy cachet as brand-building

If last year’s Emmy nomination tally was a trend barometer, then life is looking pretty good for basic cable.

In 2002, basic cable networks increased their primetime Emmy nomination haul by almost 50%, while broadcast network nominations dropped. Including pay nets, cable TV outnommed the three major broadcast networks 192 to 174.

So when this year’s primetime Emmy noms are announced July 17, the basic cable business could be buzzing once again.

Among the contenders in top categories: USA is touting its popular series “Monk” and the mayoral biopic “Rudy”; A&E is going into battle with the lavishly produced “Napoleon”; FX is pushing “The Pentagon Papers”; Sci Fi is peddling “Steven Spielberg’s Taken” and “Children of Dune”; and TNT, fresh off last year’s basic cable-leading 23 noms, is offering up “Door to Door” and “King of Texas.”

But it’s two second-year skeins that fuel the longstanding Emmy debate: Does a kudo ensure a golden glow that carries over?

In the nay corner, it’s “The Osbournes,” MTV’s then-highly rated cultural phenomenon that won last year’s nonfiction program Emmy after its freshman year.

So what happened? Comparing the first eight cablecasts this season with the first eight from March 5-April 23, 2002, Ozzy and family were down in double digits in households and across all major demographic categories, including the teens and young adults who comprise MTV’s core audience.

In the aye corner, there’s “The Shield,” FX’s gritty cop drama that nabbed a lead drama actor statue for Michael Chiklis and garnered first-ever basic cable series Emmy director (Clark Johnson) and writing (Shawn Ryan) noms.

As solid proof that Emmy wins indeed can be converted into relative success, if not more viewers, the sophomore slump that often hits successful skeins didn’t surface. Merely flat in households ratings for the first five cablecasts since Jan. 7, compared with the first five (March 12-April 9, 2002), “Shield” was down only about 2% across all demos.

“That Emmy win was one of the most important things that has happened to FX,” says Peter Liguori, the cabler’s prexy-CEO. “And to have beaten opponents in a category that had previously been open only to networks and pay services was as significant as it was wonderful.”

Significant because an Emmy win means different things in different worlds. While broadcast execs love to tout their nets’ Emmy wins, the companies don’t necessarily need them.

“Broadcast networks are judged solely on ratings and pay cable is measured on subscribers, but basic cable is serving many masters,” says Jeff Wachtel, USA’s exec VP of original programming. “Emmy wins help us get mentioned — exactly what we need. Since we don’t have the marketing budget thatbroadcasters or HBO has, it’s important that we create projects that create buzz.”

Buzz also can translate into hard dollars in the form of deals. When critics boarded USA’s “Monk” last year, the network inked a repurposing contract with ABC to air the skein Tuesday nights. Show’s star, Tony Shalhoub, went on to win a Golden Globe, and now, along with the coin that a second showing brings in, a precedent has been set: Cable shows can be transferred to the broadcast networks and survive.

Emmy buzz also can turn into retail coin, something Sci Fi is hoping will be the case when “Taken” is released on DVD on Oct. 21. (And although privately run A&E doesn’t release retail figures, execs claim sales for the DVD of last year’s Emmy-winning “Shackleton” were strong.)

Between DVD purchases, reruns and international pickups, the $40 million “Taken” could actually turn a profit. And partners must have known that “Taken” may have some sort of presence come kudo time; due to early buzz generated from a possessory credit for the most bankable man in Hollywood, “Taken” took in high ad support and sponsorship. General Motors, IBM and Radio Shack, among others, each paid between $2 million and $3 million to align with the much hyped 10-part project.

Always a contender

Shifting from kudo newbie to awards veteran, A&E has been a frontrunner in basic cable Emmy attention for the past several years, including 22 noms in 2002. Cabler has been flush with consideration thanks to a recent past that has included noms and/or wins for original movies “Horatio Hornblower,” “P.T. Barnum,” “Shackleton” and “Victoria and Albert”; prison documentary “The Farm”; last year’s music special winner “Sting in Tuscany” (this year it’s cueing up Rod Stewart); and juggernaut skein “Biography,” which last year won its sixth Emmy.

“The most important benefit of an Emmy is branding,” says Bob DeBitetto, A&E’s senior VP of programming. “For A&E, to win an Emmy reinforces the fact that we have certain kind of shows that nobody else can provide. Just as important, we’re always looking to build partnerships. When you are an Emmy winner, it’s easier to get talent on your side.”

The biggest benefit to Emmy consideration, however, is perception. In front of a national audience, a network that usually gets little exposure relative to broadcast networks all of a sudden becomes a player — and that love airs on an outside source.

Marketing tool

“Cable networks learned a long time ago that success isn’t as easy as running promos on your own network. You can’t preach to the people already tuning in. Cable networks need off-channel advertising, and that’s exactly what the Emmy awards provide,” says cable consultant Ray Solley.

Industry also could reap the rewards of timing. HBO has already had to face the prospect of life without “The Sopranos,” and “Sex in the City” has peaked (though “Curb Your Enthusiasm” may have taken its place as the pay cable series of the moment). But as Emmy consideration for those shows eventually dwindle, their nominations — HBO had 93 last year — have to go to other titles.

Exactly what the basic cable business has been waiting for.

(John Dempsey contributed to this report.)

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