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From 'Pariah’ to Prestige Player

9/26/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

There’s a hot and heavy love affair going on these days between the cable industry and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. A band of 18 cable networks romanced their way past the broadcast networks with an unprecedented 220 primetime Emmy nominations, versus the broadcasters’ tally of 206, winning a total of 50 Emmys. (Home Box Office was the night’s big winner outdistancing all other cable and broadcast networks with 32 statues.) But it wasn’t so long ago that cable was a dirty little five-letter word not to be uttered around the hallowed halls of the ATAS — much less heralded at the awards ceremonies.

“The academy has always been run by the big broadcast networks who’ve had a death grip on it,” says Tom O’Neil, author of The Emmys: The Ultimate, Unofficial Guide to the Battle of TV’s Best Shows and Greatest Stars and host of the entertainment awards Web site, goldderby.com. “Cable wasn’t even allowed to compete until 1987, which is outrageous when you consider that in the early ’80s everybody was already watching MTV.”

Sure, the fledgling medium may have been catching on. But at that time, cable wasn’t even available in a third of broadcast homes, making it ineligible for the national Emmys according to academy rules. (Calls to the ATAS for comment were not returned by press time.) And broadcasters saw little relevance in loosening their stranglehold on the awards for what they believed to be an underfunded enterprise servicing broadcast reruns, according to retired Viacom Inc. chairman Ralph M. Baruch.

“There was a great antagonism between cable and broadcasting,” Baruch says. “Cable was not considered part of the communications industry. As a matter of fact, in a speech and in writing, Jack Schneider, who was executive vice president of CBS, called cable a 'parasite industry.’”

“People made fun of [Cable News Network] as the Chicken Noodle Network,” remembers Char Beales, president & CEO of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing. “ESPN hardly had any programming when they launched — I think it was Australian football and a lot of billiards — so it wasn’t like an exclusion. [Cable wasn’t] even on the radar.”

ENTER CableACES

As cable took more chances with original programming, the cable industry wanted more attention and decided to put on a show of its own. The Washington-based National Cable & Telecommunications Association answered that call and formed The National Academy of Cable Programming to launch the CableACE Awards in 1979.

“We had our first event in Los Angeles at a small theater,” remembers Baruch who spearheaded the CableACE events. “I told everybody it should be black-tie, and after the awards, in which we are going to give out CableACE awards in various categories, we should have a little event, a dance or something. Eventually it became quite an event, and the show aired for the first time in 1982 on [Turner Network Television]. The categories expanded and I thought it was very successful and well recognized.”

Though primarily a tool for the industry to recognize itself, the CableACE awards became a key promotional machine to push the importance of cable — to the public and to the ATAS.

“On one hand, we were working on our CableACE Awards show,” says Beales, a former NCTA executive, “while at the same time talking to the academy to change the rule that was keeping cable out based on distribution.” Those conversations with the academy were always “friendly,” Beales recalls, but “they were just very slow to move.”

Of course, you can’t halt progress. As more of Hollywood’s creative community became involved in cable, more pressure was placed on the academy to recognize their work. By the 1980s, cable was beginning to break through with original programming. Wanting to get noticed, the industry became more adventurous and more daring than broadcasters in terms of subject matter, language and situations.

DARING TO BREAK RULES

“Cable has been able to break out shows and make them really hot shows,” says Tony Fox, executive vice president of corporate communications at Comedy Central and a 24-year cable veteran. “It’s really about creating new subjects, new formats, new ways of presenting television. And that’s the kind of stuff that really gets people’s attention.”

Those dynamics, along with some radical changes in Emmy voting rules and an infusion of young blood, finally broke the iceberg. In 1987, cable television was permitted to compete in primetime honors for the first time. When Fox, considered the broadcast underdog, wrestled the Emmy telecast away from the Big Three Networks the year before, it also managed to break through the broadcasters’ hold on the ATAS that had kept the cable channels out of the running.

“What Fox did,” says O’Neil, “was open the door to everybody, including cable.”

Cable’s first year at the Emmys was modest, but the medium did make some noise, earning 15 of 337 nominations and winning two awards, both for HBO’s Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam.

By the end of the ’80s, Showtime broke through with nominations for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and basic-cable networks were making a decent showing in the nominations as well.

From the beginning, HBO had been the most aggressive cable network in campaigning for the Emmys, and since 2001 has gone on to dominate the competition in Emmy nominations, toppling the erstwhile leader, NBC.

As a matter of course, HBO does not comment on its accolades, past or present, and the network declined to have its executives comment for this story. But a network spokesman did offer this insight on the early challenges of getting the attention of academy voters. “The biggest hurdle was distribution of programming,” says the spokesman, “Back then, HBO might have been in about 12 million homes, and the networks were in about 90 million homes, so the networks are basically available to everybody. It really wasn’t until the studios sent out tapes that you could even out the playing field by getting tapes to all members of the Academy.”

In the early days, HBO ran the customary trade ads, entered its films in festivals and held screenings events for academy members just to get the projects viewed. “We tried a program with one of the Warehouse record chains,” the rep says of a campaign in 1991. “That was sort of a small dent, but definitely if you’re an academy member, you could come in, and for free, show your card and get HBO programming. You might get a hundred people to watch one tape. But it all added up.”

SEVEN EMMYS IN 1991

That year, cable nabbed a total of seven trophies — five of them for HBO’s The Josephine Baker Story. Lynn Whitfield won the trophy for best actress, and Brian Gibson took home the director’s award. But the awards for Josephine Baker were a significant victory for cable television in general. The HBO production began with 12 nominations — it was the most-ever received by a cable program.

Likewise, CNN finally received notice for its coverage when a special individual achievement award was bestowed to correspondent Peter Arnett for his heroic reports from Baghdad, Iraq.

By 1993, cable was the big star of the Emmy race, with HBO tying ABC with 55 nominations. The premium channel ended up with 17 awards, the most for any network. The day after the telecast, Variety noted, “HBO’s 17 Emmy awards served as a clear notice that cable will no longer take a back seat when it comes to prestige programs.”

That year, HBO became one of the few producers to take advantage of the new rule allowing contenders to send tapes to academy members at home, remembers O’Neil.

Since then, “Comedy Central, and some of the smaller players, have done really well by getting their tapes out,” he adds. “The [broadcast] networks are really lousy about doing that.”

ACES EXIT THE STAGE

Meanwhile, as cable’s clout at the Emmys grew, interest in the CableACE awards waned.

“It was always kind of the stepchild to the Emmys,” notes Richard Licata, executive vice president of entertainment public relations for Showtime Networks Inc. “The Emmy’s just had a better brand value than the ACE, so it was only a matter of time.”

That time came abruptly in 1998, when the cable academy’s board of directors announced that the show would be disbanded, while organizers were planning the show’s 20th anniversary. “They just said, 'No more CableACE awards,’” says an insider at NCTA who requested anonymity. “And that was it.”

According to Baruch, “The CableACE awards brought cable programming to the attention of everyone, including the Television Academy. With that we had achieved what we’d set out to do.”

Today, the Emmys are “a very serious business for all of us,” says Licata. “It’s been a very interesting journey to a special kind of maturity on the part of people in this industry; it’s a healthy competition.”

Even though the playing field has been altered dramatically, changes in the rules and the judging process still keep cropping up. This year, the academy began experimenting with broadband viewing of nominated programs, allowing academy voters a chance to evaluate submissions on an ongoing basis throughout the year. Currently it’s being tested on the craft categories, like music. If all bodes well, the academy plans to branch out a little bit more every year over the next few years, asking voters to use the Internet as the means to judge and view nominees.

“So finally cable will be seen and will get as fair a shot as broadcast,” O’Neil says, “and at that point we will live in the perfect Emmy world.”

Not bad for an industry that once got as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. “The Emmys are the best place for cable to prove they’re better TV than the broadcasters,” O’Neil concludes. And with obvious bias, he can’t help adding: “As everybody knows, it is superior television.”

 

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