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Broadcasters Committed to Emmy Telecast Despite Cable, Streaming Dominance (Column)

Here’s what you won’t see much of at the Primetime Emmy Awards on Fox: Fox. 

It’s Fox’s turn to telecast the ceremony, yet it’s a somewhat bittersweet affair for the network, which only landed 18 nominations this year. That means few Fox stars will even be in attendance at the Microsoft Theater, let alone onstage, beyond those tapped to serve as presenters.

It’s become a common refrain for the broadcast networks at the Emmys: a virtual shutout in the major categories as streamers and cable dominate the proceedings — and continue to grab more of the nomination real estate. 

“There’s a bias, I believe, in the membership across the board to anything that comes from broadcast,” one network chief griped to me earlier this year. “It could be great, but there’s a bias against it.”

That’s not quite true, as the breakthrough for “The Good Place” demonstrates. The NBC sitcom’s third season earned its first outstanding comedy series nom, proving that buzz and critical acclaim can still make a difference with Emmy voters — even for broadcast series.

But that network president’s point is well taken when you consider it wasn’t too long ago that broadcast TV dominated the nominations, with a few cable series thrown in for good measure. This year NBC was still the third-most-nominated network, but saw its tally drop from 78 to 58. ABC also dipped (31 to 26), while CBS got a bit of an uptick (35 to 43). 

Fox is actually up year-to-year in nominations, having garnered just 16 in 2018. But its biggest nominations are for outstanding animated program (“The Simpsons” and “Bob’s Burgers”) and outstanding variety special (live), for “Rent.” The network’s only performance noms are for voiceover work on “Family Guy” and “The Simpsons.” 

This year, just two scripted primetime broadcast series earned five or more nominations: NBC’s “This Is Us” (nine) and “The Good Place” (five). The Peacock’s “Saturday Night Live” is the only broadcast series to earn double-digit noms, at 18.

That’s why it was a bit of a surprise when the four major broadcast networks agreed to renew their Emmy “wheel deal” last November, continuing their pact to alternate airing the telecast through 2026.

It makes sense for the Television Academy — the org knows that the broadcasters are still the best way to get the largest audience possible to watch its signature event. But for the networks, it’s a little frustrating to air an awards show that has become a showcase for other platforms to tout their wares. 

Yet it remains important for the broadcasters to hold on to TV’s most important night. 

“All the networks share responsibility to air the Emmys; it’s something we all have to do,” Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn told me in January.  “And I think we have to figure out how do we use the Emmys to promote our stars and promote our shows, knowing that in this moment in time our shows are less likely to be a part of the Emmy conversation.” 

The Emmys are the traditional signal that a new TV season is launching — and that late September kickoff date is more significant for the broadcasters than it is for others.

Also, had the major networks dropped the Emmys, the symbolism would have been too embarrassing — and would have been overused as an analogy for the broadcasters’ decline. The traditional networks are still where most of the biggest TV events reside, including the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the Oscars, so it was vital to keep TV’s most important fete, despite their frustrations with their awards tallies. 

As the broadcasters lose out on Emmy love, one option — creating a new awards show to recognize more mainstream series — seems to be a nonstarter. Says one exec: “You could definitely do that, but remember the CableACE Awards? When cable wasn’t as good as broadcast? Nobody who has an Emmy and a CableACE Award puts the CableACE Award on their shelf — they put their Emmy up there.”

Instead, if the broadcast networks want to maintain their reputation as TV’s home base, even as streaming steals their thunder, they’ll have to put up with telecasting an Emmy ceremony that showcases the most lauded shows in television, even if those programs aren’t theirs.

“I still think broadcast networks are where people go to get content that is truly broad,” another network exec tells me. “Whether it be football or big news events, that’s where this should live.” 

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