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Emmys Struggle to Entice Audience

After killing at the Tony Awards, Neil Patrick Harris is an inspired choice to host Sunday night's Primetime Emmy Awards.

About that, most people agree. Everything else, though...

Last year's Emmy broadcast reached historic lows. Reasons vary.

Cable wins too much! So say the broadcast networks.

Network shows aren't good enough! So goes the cable retort.

The awards show itself is too long and boring! So says pretty much everyone.

There is some validity to those complaints, even if they smack of whining. And Emmy is far from alone in its predicament.

The Academy Awards and the Grammys don't get the audiences they used to. What does? But when people start to lose interest, the importance of the awards themselves starts to be called into question. There's talk that maybe cable ought to have its own awards (don't these people remember the CableACE awards?). Or the Emmys should be shown on cable. Or something, anything, to stop the bleeding somehow. There are advertisers to think of, after all.

Keeping an audience

Can something be done to keep it all relevant, to maintain dignity and a decent-sized audience?

"It's kind of the million-dollar question," Harris says. "I think everyone's scratching their head about how to improve it and yet respect it. You can take radical steps to try and improve it to get more people to watch, but I think that might be at the expense of the people winning the awards, and that, quite frankly, is what the awards are about."

The man trying to juggle that balance is well aware of the predicament.

"Look, producing award shows is always difficult," says Don Mischer, who is producing the Emmys for CBS. "In general, more can go wrong than go right."

He quoted Gil Cates, his friend and frequent producer of the Oscar telecast: "It comes down to whether the awards gods smile favorably on you or not."

Toss in the mandate of handing out 28 awards, "more than any other (show) in what is becoming every year a shorter amount of program content time - this year we have two hours and nine minutes altogether," Mischer says - and trying to keep things moving quickly and making it all interesting grows more difficult still.

Getting people to know TV

Mischer's trying some new things, but it's hard not to think that this might be a bit of a losing battle.

"We're in a new period in television, in which ratings are declining across the board due to competing media platforms (the Web, Internet, Skype, YouTube and the like) and the culture of narcissism that sites like Facebook and MySpace encourage; everyone is a star, so why tune in when you're the best show in town yourself?" says Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska.

Audience fragmentation can be invigorating and exciting for the person toggling back and forth between his Twitter account, the TV.com app on his iPhone and Grooveshark.com for whatever song he wants to listen to at the moment. But that also means fragmentation of the water cooler, the theoretical meeting place for people to gather and talk about whatever shared experience they had the night before. There was a time when that meant talking about the latest episode of "Bonanza." Now, it could mean 10 different things to 10 different people. You caught "True Blood?" No, it's on my DVR. I was updating my Web page instead.

And if familiarity breeds contempt, well, don't tell that to Mischer.

"The problem with the ratings is simply that it's been proven over and over again that familiarity with nominated content is what drives ratings higher," he says. "In the case of the Oscars, if you go back and look at years when really popular movies, like "Lord of the Rings" or "Titanic" or "Forrest Gump" were nominated, the ratings really spike."

Yet now, especially with television, familiarity is a tougher sell.

"The problem with television is there's such a proliferation of content," Mischer says. "I go home at night when I want to relax and I have 600 channels to choose from. It's impossible for any one viewer to be familiar with all that. That's the dilemma facing the Emmys and other awards shows out there. It's hard to get invested in a show that's passing out awards for material you're not familiar with."

Changes this year

With that in mind, there will be some differences in this year's telecast.

"We're trying very hard to change the feeling of the show this year, so we can give people more information about what's going on," Mischer says. That means not just listing nominees, for instance, but perhaps having them say a signature line, or when a winner walks off to offer more information, maybe "where they're from, where they went to school."

Research found that if viewers weren't familiar with winners last year, they'd retreat to the computer and look them up. Mischer's trying to save them the trouble this year - and keep their eyes on the television set, not the computer screen.

If ratings aren't what they might be, at least lately it's hard to quibble with the quality of the winners. (Note: This is a fairly recent development; for years, Emmy was known for handing out hardware to shows long past their prime, contributing to the notion that voters didn't actually, you know, watch television but just made their picks based on outdated reputation. It seemed only a matter of time till a show that had been off the air a couple of years got a nomination.) Last year "Mad Men" won for best drama, "30 Rock" for best comedy. No problem there.

Except this: Relatively few people watch them. Creatively, that doesn't matter. But when you're trying to sell soap, it's a different story.

It's possible that, like seemingly everything else in the world these days, expectations are simply going to have to be lowered. Maybe advertisers and networks are simply going to have to accept smaller ratings and adjust accordingly.

"The whole economic model of this is going to force that to happen," Mischer says. "What's happening with television is, with 600 channels, it's becoming more of a niche entertainment business."

Saving the show

One idea is to move the awards broadcast to cable, which would do away with the commercials that cut into broadcast times. In years past, HBO tried to get it. Harris says it was "probably an inevitability at some time" that it would move to cable. He also talked about competing against cable shows for the awards.

"It's just totally apples and oranges," he says. "In cable shows, you get the wonderful ability to be uncensored in every way. That allows for more extreme story structures. And yet the shows that people respond to are the more mainstream shows that families can watch together. I think both (kinds of ) shows can coexist happily together. At the end of the day, that's what we're all happy doing, is working."

So does all this mean the cache of the Emmys, the Grammys, even the Oscars will be diluted? Despite all the hand-wringing, probably not.

Harris thinks they have merit, though he qualified it a bit.

"It's certainly exciting validation" to be nominated, he says. "But it is very arbitrary and subjective. From category to category, it's so different, and comedies are the strangest of the lot, because you have so many different kinds competing. ... But certainly it's a fun thing to aspire to have on your mantle."

And for those outside the business, awards still mean something.

"I'd say that awards programs will always matter," Dixon says. "They provide exposure for stars, directors and writers; they celebrate the industries that spawn them; they focus consumer attention on product ... and they're relatively cheap programming. I think they'll always matter and continue to flourish, in new formats."

What those formats may be isn't clear, but it probably involves a computer and a mouse. Or, who knows, something more.

"What lies ahead?" Mischer asks. "I wish we saw a clear path that led us to the mountaintop and gave us the answer."

Keep climbing is about all Mischer and the Emmys can do. And hope that ratings eventually follow suit.

1 Responses »

  1. CBS and other networks still don't understand. It's not the long standing Emmy's per se, it's the terrible, terrible programming that they continue to produce and put on the air. No one watches it so who cares about an Award Show for terrible programming.