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Emmys: TV Needs to Get Over Its Inferiority Complex

With creatives frequently drawn to the smallscreen, Emmy voters need to know they can compete with film

F or years, the prevailing assumption has been that Emmy voters — and TV people in general — are positively ga-ga over movie stars. And if that’s still really the case, here’s a thought: Time to get over it.

Previewing the Emmys, the Los Angeles Times noted that “House of Cards” features talent imbued with “the kind of bigscreen cachet … that makes academy members weak in the knees,” including Kevin Spacey, Robin Wright and director David Fincher. And while Spacey and Wright came up short, Fincher — a two-time Oscar nominee — won for directing the first episode of “Cards.”

But if it’s true that members of the TV academy still feel like second-class-citizen status vis-a-vis movies — at least in the award-show context — then it’s more like they’re weak in the head.

Creatively speaking, TV has arguably become the dominant medium in pop culture — a passing of the baton even cinephiles increasingly acknowledge. Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern even recently noted the trend in a piece titled “In Defense of the Movies.”

So while it’s fine for movie stars to come ply their trade in television — often because it offers them the opportunity to do the kind of character-driven work that might not be as readily available in features — those who work in TV should not be rendered speechless and wide-eyed by the prospect of having film luminaries attend their annual party. That’s for people living in the past.

Ever since HBO, in particular, started wooing movie talent, easing their misgivings in part with that brilliant old slogan “It’s not TV. It’s HBO,” there’s been a parade of marquee names finding their way to television. Invariably, stories are written each year documenting those Oscar winners and nominees recognized with Emmy bids, and the overlap between contenders who have an Academy Award on the mantle alongside their Emmy. Fincher’s Emmy win for drama series direction was one of the safer bets on Sunday, to the dismay of those who felt that Emmy voters’ knee-jerk tendency toward movie people came at the expense of impressive work from two seasoned female directors, Leslie Linka Glatter (nominated for “Homeland”) and Michelle MacLaren (“Breaking Bad”).

Yet few would dare suggest now that movie people are slumming when they come to TV. Rather they’re making a pragmatic choice, and potentially a more creatively rewarding one — unless you think there was a line of studios willing to give the big wide release treatment to HBO’s “Behind the Candelabra,” which scored Emmys Sunday for Michael Douglas and director Steven Soderbergh.

“TV is where it’s at,” Soderbergh said standing amid the splendor of HBO’s Emmy after-party (an annual display of the pay cabler’s gaudy riches unmatched by any other network or studio). “Something like (AMC’s) ‘Breaking Bad’ would never happen in the studio system.”

As anyone paying attention knows, TV’s influence also reaches far deeper than just what’s on screen. Executives from TV backgrounds — Disney’s Robert Iger, CBS’ Leslie Moonves, Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes, NBCUniversal’s Steve Burke, Chase Carey at Fox (and before that Peter Chernin) — run the major studios.

Similarly, while there are select film actors who still collect massive paydays, in success, TV stars can command the kind of salaries and profit participation points that actors (and their agents) can only dream of in today’s movie landscape. Bobby Cannavale, a surprise winner on Sunday for his work on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” (a lavish period drama that Martin Scorsese helped bring to life), spoke of hitting the jackpot in cable drama the way actors once spoke of landing a career-making film.

“Movies aren’t making dramas anymore,” Cannavale said, echoing the sentiments of many a working actor. “Cable (is) the place where you go to do good work. I lucked out. I hit it at the right time.”

It’s equally telling that digital players like Netflix — this year’s Emmy upstart — have largely chosen to distinguish and brand their services with original content by ordering series.

Back in the late 1990s during a panel discussion of TV showrunners, sitcom producer Charlie Hauck sought to explain the notion that TV suffered from a sort of inferiority complex by saying, “Movies are bigger. They win.”

That was before “The Sopranos,” though, and before AMC and FX decided they wanted in on the prestige action. Any inherent advantage conferred on “bigger” has thus blurred in terms of quality, perception and even delivery systems and technology, which has further narrowed differences in how various media are consumed.

Sure, there’s still nothing quite like an Imax 3D sensual assault, if you’re into that sort of thing. But for movies that don’t require that visceral experience, a 47-inch high-definition set and homemade popcorn will do just fine.

By all means, if people principally known for movies venture into TV and do yeoman’s work, they should be honored and applauded, patted on the back and sent home with trophies. And yes, there is something nifty for those weaned on “The Godfather” saga about rubbing shoulders with nominees like Al Pacino, or Helen Mirren, a dame who’s really a Dame.

But if the motivation to recognize movie players still stems from a starry-eyed desire to class up the place, Emmy voters should take a deep breath and look around. Because at its best, TV circa 2013 is already pretty damn classy.

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