In 1991, Emmy producer Steve Sohmer spoke about goals for the telecast that still seemed very much a possibility.
“I hope the Emmys will perform the magical thing they’ve done in the past by pointing out shows the public has not quite discovered,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “‘Hill Street Blues,’ ‘Cheers’ and ‘St. Elsewhere’ were all marginal shows that won a pile of Emmys and then became hits. … That’s a way the entertainment industry can say to the public, ‘Hey, here’s a good one you missed.’ When that recognition can be converted into popularity, that’s gratifying.”
Fast forward a generation, and plenty has changed, from the major networks’ muted presence within the Emmy ceremony — including being shut out in the prestigious best drama category, with PBS’ “Downton Abbey” serving as broadcast’s lone representative — to the fact that there’s less heat surrounding the official start of the fall campaign, in part because the modern TV “season” never really ends.
In terms of representing the starter’s pistol for the fall TV season, the Emmys just aren’t what they used to be. Indeed, if “Endless Summer” denoted the search for big waves, “Endless Fall” is a fair description of a programming tsunami that ebbs and flows, perhaps, but never really ends.
As Sohmer noted, the Emmys once offered a showcase to try building excitement — especially for TV’s high-quality series — heading into the fall. NBC, for example, parlayed Emmy wins in the 1980s into a promotion for its Thursday roster as “the best night of television on television,” a precursor to what became “Must-See TV.”
Yet while ratings for the Emmys (and other award shows) have remained relatively good, the notion that TV’s big night stands out on a calendar overflowing with “events” has grown more tenuous. And while there’s still value in claiming the prestige that goes with such acclaim, there’s minimal evidence of a correlation between golden trophies and ratings.
In an age of abundant choice and fragmentation, the Emmys have rather primarily become a branding opportunity, especially for premium and now streaming services. “Mad Men,” to cite one example, dominated the drama category without ever really becoming a sizable hit. And while AMC running mate “Breaking Bad” did blossom over time, that had at least as much to do with binge viewing and word-of-mouth as its best-series honors, which actually didn’t come until near the end of its run.
That’s not to say awards don’t have value, only that determining how much has become more nebulous and complicated. As a network, AMC built its reputation with such series, and has sought to leverage the passion they engender during cable-carriage disputes, yielding consumer-friendly headlines like “AT&T U-Verse Subscribers Might Miss ‘Mad Men’ Debut.” Newer services like Netflix and now Amazon have burnished their credentials as legitimate players alongside more traditional outlets with noms for programs like “House of Cards” and “Transparent,” respectively.
Just as HBO recognized the benefit of awards as a marketing tool early on — prompting the major networks to grouse in a year like 2004, when “Angels in America” dominated the ceremony, that they were televising a three-hour commercial for the pay service — establishing that patina of quality becomes bigger than any one series. And even if the public doesn’t always flock to anointed programs, all that attention helps in making inroads with another significant constituency — serving notice to major industry talent that their work has a chance of being recognized within those venues.
The Emmys remain a marquee event within the industry for the same reasons the Oscars, Tonys and Grammys do: Despite a proliferation of awards shows — or perhaps because of it — these peer-to-peer awards convey a feeling of industry recognition that, as this year’s producer Don Mischer recently noted, is taken more seriously than other made-for-TV excuses to get all dressed up.
Still, if the Emmys were once TV’s version of the dinner bell — a handy way of announcing to the world that dinner is served — now they’re just one more menu item in an anytime, virtually anywhere, all-you-can-eat buffet.