Emmys and HBO will both sparkle tonight

It's become clear that cable network has ownership of excellence

Television

September 19, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Once upon a time, the Emmys celebrated excellence in writing, producing, acting and directing wherever found throughout the television industry. But this year, one network seems to have, if not a stranglehold, then a headlock on superior programming.

Cable's HBO network, which already has set one record by receiving 124 nominations, is expected to sweep tonight's 56th annual Emmy Awards show when the statues are handed out. And a second record stands to be broken: Angels in America, HBO's adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about AIDS and Reagan-era America, is likely to surpass ABC's 1977 landmark Roots (which won nine Emmys) as the most honored miniseries of all time. Not even in the "Tiffany Network" days of the late 1960s, when CBS seemed to win one out of every two Emmys awarded, has the domination of the awards been so complete.

Beyond the trophies and the broken records lies another, less glittery story. In this tale, network television has chosen to pursue breathlessly the sky-high ratings generated by reality TV at the expense of excellence in drama and comedy. Look past the gowns and acceptance speeches tonight, experts say, and you will also see a changing of the guard: the Emmys offering ritualistic confirmation of a major shift in the television landscape.

This year, HBO - working under a model in which pursuing excellence makes good business sense - has earned more nominations than ABC, Fox and CBS combined. Furthermore, many of the nominations that the broadcast networks did receive are from sitcoms and dramas already off the air, such as NBC's Friends, or about to leave, like NBC's West Wing.

This is not to say that there is no longer any innovative and exciting TV programming to be had - there is. But because much of it is produced by HBO and a few of its cable cousins, what was once free or minimally priced now comes with a hefty monthly fee.

No cash payoffs

"There is no doubt about it. You are going to see a veritable sweep for HBO when the statues are awarded," said Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys, the definitive book on the 56-year history of the awards. "That's going to be the big story. But within that is another very important one about the most honored network shows passing from the scene with almost nothing to replace them - except on cable."

That change may owe more to economics and creative ennui at the networks than anything HBO has done, according to University of Maryland, College Park, media economist and historian Douglas Gomery.

"The networks don't care about Emmys any more, because Emmys don't translate into money the way Oscars do with films," Gomery said, pointing to such trashy reality series as NBC's Fear Factor. The reality show costs less than $1 million per episode to produce - about half what ABC's drama, NYPD Blue, costs, but brings in higher ad revenues.

"Forget quality. The networks by and large are not trying to make anything but the most cost-effective TV these days to please their corporate owners."

A recent example of how the major networks have ceded the higher but more costly ground was their unwillingness this summer to offer prime-time coverage of the Democratic and Republican national conventions. The result was that the Fox News Channel was the most-watched source of convention news, with an audience of about 5 million viewers at any given time.

"What happened during the conventions highlights better than anything else what we're talking about: The clear shift not just in the way the networks see their role today, but also in the way viewers have come to look elsewhere for certain kinds of programming and coverage," said Lawrence Lichty, professor of television and film at Northwestern University.

But HBO's dominance is more than just a matter of winning by default. The cable network has earned glory by seeking out talented writers and helping them become first-time executive producers, and that has led to smart, successful and innovative shows.

Those who have worked with HBO say there is a formula in place that brings out the best in them and makes for great television. "They're fearlessly creative," said Michael Patrick King, the 49-year-old executive producer of Sex and the City. "They totally embrace the risk of an idea from the artist. And then they totally back it up financially and marketing-wise. They really put their money where their mouth is."

11 nominations for `Sex'

King's Sex and the City will be a major player on tonight's Emmy stage, with 11 nominations, including one for Sarah Jessica Parker as outstanding actress in a comedy series.

"That could be the biggest emotional moment of all on Emmy night - Parker finally winning for best actress," said O'Neil, who serves as host on GoldDerby.com, Hollywood's most complete awards show Web site.

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