A few weeks ago, some of TV’s most famous celebrities, such as Bill Cosby, John Travolta, Michael
J. Fox, Stevie Wonder and Liza Minnelli, appeared on a stage to receive awards, give
performances or honor their peers.
But it wasn’t at the Emmy Awards, the Golden Globes or even the Screen Actors Guild
Awards. The scene played out live on cable’s TV Land as part of the classic TV-themed channel’s
annual TV Land Awards show — one of several cable-branded, awards-based specials
that are vying with traditional awards shows across several genres these days.
More new awards shows than ever before are suddenly popping up, including Comedy Central’s
Comedy Awards and Cartoon Network’s Hall of Game Awards. In part, that’s because network-branded
award shows are often cable network’s biggest franchise winners, in terms of viewership, marketing,
brand-building and awareness.
The shows themselves are bona fide Hollywood-inspired
events: glitzy, celebrity-filled and with plenty of red carpet.
Networks typically show off their hottest stars and performers
from a myriad of genres, hoping to build viewer
engagement through both viewing and viewer voting in
Several shows, such as the MTV Video Music Awards, Nickelodeon’s
Kids’ Choice Awards and ESPN’s The ESPYs have
been winners for years, drawing a strong following. And more
new entrants, such as Comedy Central’s Comedy Awards and
Cartoon Network’s Hall of Game Awards, are following these
stalwarts down the red carpet.
Because the shows typically draw strong ratings, they provide
a marketing platform to promote new and existing shows.
And advertisers are drawn into the mix by a vehicle that reaches
a very targeted audience.
While reality series and scripted shows generate the lion’s
share of publicity and notoriety for basic cable networks, it’s often
the awards shows that win the Nielsen day.
MTV’s top-rated series Jersey Shore, featuring reality stars
Snooki and Jwoww, set a network record by drawing 8.9 million
viewers for its Jan. 20 episode as part of its benchmark-setting
second season. But those numbers pale next to the 11.4
million viewers who watched last year’s VMAs, with its lineup
of music divas such as Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Rihanna
— and the show was only the third-most-watched event in
the franchise’s 27-year history.
“[The VMAs] are a great marketing tool for MTV the brand
and everything we do,” Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks
Music and Logo Group, said. “We put combustible elements
in a room and let them go … it’s really the zeitgeist of
music, musicians and artists all in one room for one evening.”
The shows have an ability to stick in the national consciousness.
Consider the interest in the pop-culture
confrontation between country music star Taylor
Swift and rap star Kanye West, televised live on
MTV during the 2009 VMAs.
In January, BET’s new series The
Game set a cable record for a
scripted comedy series premiere,
with 7.7 million viewers.
But the series about players on
a fictional football team fell short of the goal
line when compared to the network record
10.7 million viewers who tuned in for the
2009 BET Awards.
Stephen Hill, president of entertainment
and music programming for BET, said the 11-year franchise
is critical to the network’s brand image and awareness. That’s
because it allows the African-American-targeted network to
celebrate the musical performers, stars and celebrities that its
viewers watch throughout the year.
“The BET Awards is absolutely crucial to the brand,” Hill
said. “It’s about celebrating our own and highlighting, elevating
and educating our audience through and around entertainment.”
LOOKING FOR MORE EDGE
While traditional awards shows such as the Grammys, Emmys
and Academy Awards are still popular with viewers, network
executives say viewers continue to gravitate to cable-branded
award shows because they’re different — and often more edgy
— than the staid and predictable industry-run affairs.
The 11-year-old CMT Awards has built a huge following
among young country-music fans by showcasing more
up-and-coming talent than the more-established Academy
of Country Music Awards or Country Music Association
Awards, according to Brian Phillips, CMT president.
CMT’s ceremony, which drew a record 3 million viewers
last June, provided the first mainstream exposure and
awards recognition for such artists as Taylor Swift, Kellie
Pickler and Dierks Bentley, Phillips said.
“There’s no politics involved; it’s just people turning out
in mass to vote for the people
they love the most, and their instincts as a coalition of
voters and fans tend to predict what will come true in the
next year or so on the other award shows,” Phillips said.
Other awards shows, like Spike’s Video Game Awards
and Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, look to zero in
on narrowly defined niches like men 18-34 or kids 6-11,
respectively — demos that aren’t being served by traditional
mainstream awards shows.
Cartoon Network’s inaugural Hall of Game Awards this
past February sought to reach 6-to-11-year-old boys by giving
awards to sports stars, from traditional pursuits such
as basketball to non-traditional athletics like roller skating
or action sports. All of the categories, and the eventual
winners, were voted on by the network’s core viewers and
the show was hosted by skateboarding legend Tony Hawk.
The Hall of Game Awards eventually drew 1.1 million
viewers but more importantly posted a 29% year-to-year
increase in the core boys 6-11 demo, according to Cartoon
Network president and chief operating officer Stu Snyder.
Other networks are also looking to further engage
viewers by allowing them to vote on some
or all of their awards-show categories online.
Such interactive opportunities have only
made the awards show even more valuable
in the eyes of its audience.
“It’s another opportunity to find a
way to reach out to our viewers and
have an evening of celebration,”
ESPN Enterprises senior vice president Keith Clinkscales said. Category
voting for the 2010 ESPYs, now in their 17th year, drew a record
8 million online votes.
Earlier this month, Nick’s Kids’ Choice Awards drew 200
million online votes for such categories as “favorite buttkicker,”
according to Cyma Zarghami, Nickelodeon and
MTV Networks Kids and Family Group president.
But it’s not only viewers who are attracted to the awards.
A number of celebrities relish the opportunity to appear at
events that resonate with their fans.
Cable-based awards shows in 2011 has already drawn
such talent as Academy Award winners Johnny Depp (Nick
Kids’ Choice Awards) and Jamie Foxx (BET Honors); Emmy
Award winners Bill Cosby and Michael J. Fox (TV Land
Awards); and entertainment icons Eddie Murphy (Comedy
Awards) and John Travolta (TV Land Awards).
Cartoon’s Snyder said that cable awards shows give celebrities
an opportunity to connect with their fans who
more often than not voted for them to win awards. It also
provides both artists and network executives to discuss
possible projects beyond the shows.
“It opens up a dialogue with those
celebrities and athletes who have
ideas of either a show or something
they want to promote or get
involved in,” Snyder said, adding
that he is in talks with several sports figures
about undisclosed network projects based on
discussions during the Hall of Game event.
TV Land president Larry Jones said the
network’s relationship over the years with
Betty White — she appeared in two TV Land
Awards telecasts — paved the way for her role
in the top-rated series Hot in Cleveland. The
nine-year-old TV Land Awards celebrates
classic television shows and the iconic actors
and actresses who’ve appeared in them.
“As we do more and more original programming
we’re trying to tap into this well of
talent either on a guest star or lead actor basis
that look familiar to us, and the awards show
helps us with those relationships,” Jones said.
Networks are also using the awards shows
as vehicles to introduce new or existing shows
to viewers. MTV reality series World of Jenks
premiered to a network-record 4.8 million
viewers last September, with the VMAs as its
lead-in. This June, MTV will launch its muchballyhooed
series Teen Wolf after its MTV
Music Awards to maximize audience.
Last year’s Movie Awards telecast helped
freshman scripted series The Hard Times
of R.J. Berger launch with nearly 3 million
viewers, a record for an MTV scripted series.
“Even at 11 p.m. after the shows end,
it’s such a great lead-in because it is the
highest-rated night of the year, so it makes
sense to launch a new series behind it,” said
Toffler, who also oversees award shows for
VH1 (Hip Hop Honors, Rock Honors), Logo
(NewNowNext Awards) and MTV’s new online-
based O Awards.
Despite more than 20 cable-televised awards
shows slated for 2011, executives expressed
few concerns about audience fatigue. The
shows themselves, they said, should be considered
entertainment. As BET’s Hill said: “ I
have confi dence that the BET Awards show
has put a stake in the ground, not so much
as a competition show, but more of a family
gathering for our viewers.”