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Analyzing the Victories

9/23/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

Cable networks have scored so many victories in recent years that it seemed a no-brainer the accolades would be equally impressive this year. And yet 2005 brought some notable changes to programmers.

Sure, Home Box Office still dominates with the most wins among all networks — broadcast and cable. But Showtime scored an important “first” this time out: Blythe Danner notched the network’s first victory in a top five category for her role as Izzy Huffstodt in Huff.

All told, cable captured 188 of 434 nominations in 88 categories, and nominations were spread among 22 cable networks. The victories were expanded to more networks than ever before, with basic networks Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, A&E Network, Discovery Channel, Hallmark Channel and USA Network joining the winner’s circle.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

Emmy momentum is certainly moving in cable’s direction, says Tim Brooks, senior vice president of research for Lifetime Network and a TV historian. Cable’s wins reflect the “real growth in quality and quantity of shows on cable in the last 10 years.”

He adds: “When leading Hollywood producers came to [cable], that’s when the artificial wall came down.”

But Brooks believes cable is still not on par with broadcast when it comes to the respect given that medium.

“Broadcast is still at an unfair advantage,” he says, noting that more voters are affiliated with broadcast networks than cable outlets, and the top marketing budgets still go to broadcasters.

“The marketing machines that get all those viewers also get to all those voters. Attention to those shows still washes over Emmy voters,” he says. “A lot of voters vote on what they remember seeing, and broadcast is more top of mind.”

Cable executives like Brooks have a keen understanding of just how far cable has come. Prior to 1985, it was easier for a prankster to get on stage and collect an Emmy than it was for a legitimate cable producer, craftsman or star.

Indeed, at the Emmys that year, an event crasher took to the stage and accepted an Emmy that had been won by Betty Thomas for her supporting actress role in Hill Street Blues. (The hoaxer, Barry Bremen, was arrested at the Pasadena Civic Theater that night and charged with grand larceny, according to the awards history by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.)

Until that year, ATAS declined to recognize the original fare that was being produced on cable networks. The only chance cable program creators had for community acknowledgement of quality work was the CableAce awards, held annually in January.

But the proliferation of networks, and the growing amount of original programming available on cable, finally swung the balance in 1985, when the ATAS board of directors finally voted to allow cable-produced fare to compete in the annual primetime Emmy awards.

It still took a while for cable to become a full participant. Rules had to be worked out, and Emmy juries had to be enticed to view the programs. But cable networks finally broke through in 1990 with 10 awards. Premium networks lead the way, and HBO began a trend that endures to this day. That year, it won eight of the 10 cable awards. Then-premium Disney Channel won the other two.

Cable’s early wins may have benefited from Emmy voters’ love affair with movie and stage stars that venture into TV.

Those first Emmys included two for Hume Cronyn and Vincent Gardenia for Age Old Friends and one for George Burns playing himself in A Conversation With … on The Disney Channel. Voters also liked Billy Crystal, rewarding him for his special Midnight Train to Moscow; and Olympic skaters Katerina Witt, Brian Boitano and Brian Orser, who performed in the opera Carmen on Ice.

HBO Led Early

It didn’t take long for HBO to match top nomination getters, though. In 1993, the premium service tied broadcaster ABC with 77 nominations each.

Multiple nominees included The Larry Sanders Show, Citizen Cohn, The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom; Dream On; and Barbarians at the Gate. Ultimately, HBO won 17 awards that year.

That tonnage lead to two Emmy firsts. Cable was responsible for the first win as best director in television by a woman. Betty Thomas, who had her glory stolen 1985, won an Emmy in 1993 for directing an episode of Dream On.

Also, The Larry Sanders Show, starring cable favorite and former CableAce host Garry Shandling, became the first cable show to be nominated in one of the top categories. In this instance, it was picked as one of the season’s top comedy shows. It didn’t win. Larry Sanders went on to amass a total of 56 nominations through the run of the show, but it only won three. In 1996, co-star Rip Torn struck Emmy gold; and the writers and directors won statuettes in 1998.

Though critically acclaimed, it still holds the Emmy record for the show to collect the most nominations in a season (16 in 1977) without winning a single award. It shares that lack of distinction with the CBS dramedy Northern Exposure, which went 0-for-16 in 1993.

American Movie Classics scored a first for itself in 1995, earning the first-ever Presidents’ Award. The newly minted category was created to recognize programs that best explore social, educational or medical issues or which encourage changes that will help society.

AMC’s winning program was Blacklist: Hollywood on Trial, an exploration of the impact of politically motivated Communist hunting on the creative community. The timing of the documentary was opportune; the President’s Award category vanished by 1998.

HBO found a new category to break into in 1997, when commercials were given their own Emmy competition. A branding spot, featuring footage of apes that had been digitally altered to appear as if the monkeys were spouting dialog from box office blockbusters, won the first “best commercial” Emmy.

Clearly, there are plenty of other future victories on the wish list of cable programmers. Lifetime’s Brooks says he wouldn’t be surprised if the Emmys found a home on cable within the next five years. With the trend toward media consolidation, perhaps broadcast and cable networks owned by the same company will team up to bid for the Emmys and telecast them simultaneously across multiple networks, he suggests.

The Emmys have been on broadcast a long time and have become set in their look, he added. Cable might bring a fresh perspective.

“Can you imagine the Emmys on MTV?” he asked.

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