BY VERNE GAY In the greater Los Angeles area, there was a broadcast executive — quite possibly two or three or even a whole crowd of them — whose jaw noticeably slackened as the evening of Jan. 19 wore on, minute after grueling minute. By night’s end, this person may have had the overwhelming sensation that his or her pocket, so to speak, had just been picked. And, so to speak, it had. This was the night of the Golden Globes, and as the last “thank you” was finally and mercifully uttered, a realization perhaps occurred to this person along with a few million others that cable — and not just HBO — had just swept the entire bloody television category (save one: best actress, to Jennifer Aniston of Friends). The Golden Globes happen to be one of those awards ceremonies where participants and guests are encouraged to drink heavily — and no doubt this blunted the psychic pain that broadcasters in the audience may have experienced. But by morning, the hangover had set in. Cable had overwhelmed these once-laughable-now-prestigious awards. What could this possibly mean? “What it means,” says Michael Jackson, chairman of Universal Television Entertainment, whose jaw was firmly in place that night — Tony Shalhoub of USA’s Monk won best actor in a musical or comedy series — “is that the old hierarchy is gone. Just as they’ve gone in most other aspects of life, so they’ve gone in television.” Others searching for additional meaning had to look no further than last summer, when cable — for the first time ever — collected more Emmy nominations (192) than the three major broadcast networks (174) combined. Then, fast-forward to September, when Michael Chiklis (FX’s The Shield) would win best actor — and, incidentally, the third year in a row an actor on a major cable drama won the major acting award. (The other? James Gandolfini, of The Sopranos, who won in 2000 and ’01.) Cable would also win best acting statues in miniseries and take away gold for best mini, too (Band of Brothers). A watershed year? Hardly. In 2001, Sex and the City won best comedy and Edie Falco (Sopranos) best actress. Cable, meanwhile, would dominate the award category that now appears to be all its very own: made-for-TV movies and minis. The slack-jawed TV executive may have come to the conclusion that this just may be the century of cable. Or, at the very least, the century of cable awards. This is an extraordinary moment in the cable programming business and, for proof, one need look no further than this most obvious barometer of success in cable programming. Cable is awash in awards. It’s not just HBO. And it’s not only Globes and Emmys but also Daytime Emmys and SAGs and DGAs and Producer Guild’s awards and even Peabodys. Cable is winning them for dramas and sitcoms and movies, and it’s winning them for cartoons and documentaries and specials and just about any other program category you can imagine. Cable is winning them and flaunting them — in ads, on the air, in promotions and cable guides. Cable, explains Tom O’Neil, editor of goldderby.com and a leading authority on the Emmys (and an E! commentator), is “absolutely obsessed” with awards. And there are — yes — good, sound, business reasons for this obsession, and we’ll get to those in a minute. But like all obsessions, there is an emotional, symbolic edge to this as well. An edge that says: “We have come of age, and we’re as good as any broadcaster — and you can’t keep us down anymore.” “What it really is,” says Sci Fi chief Bonnie Hammer, whose Steven Spielberg Presents: Taken is a lock to win the best miniseries Emmy this fall, “is an affirmation that you’ve broken through. I remember going back to when the only award we could even submit for were the Cable Aces, and when HBO finally entered the Emmys for the first time [in 1987] we thought, ‘This is ridiculous. How in hell can they win?’ And look how many Emmys they’ve walked away with since then. It’s basically a coming-of-age story where we can compete not only toe-to-toe [with the networks] but win.” And win and win. Who will take home an Emmy this fall? The list of potential nominees goes on and on. A brief list: A&E (Shackleton, or maybe The Magnificent Ambersons); Discovery (James Cameron’s Expedition: Bismarck or When Dinosaurs Roamed America); Hallmark (Johnson County War); Lifetime (We Were the Mulvaneys or perhaps the series Strong Medicine); Sci Fi (Stargate SG-1); TNT (King of Texas and Door to Door); and Showtime (series Resurrection Blvd. or Soul Food). There are obvious reasons for cable’s big awards binge. The first, of course: There’s a lot of good programming out there, much of it more expensive (Taken or anything on HBO) or as well-acted (Shield) or as brilliantly produced (Door to Door) or as engaging (Bismarck) as anything on television anywhere. Cable programming got better — in large measure — simply because it had to. Nielsen Media Research now measures 14 more cable networks than it did a decade ago. That means, among other things, viewer dilution, and the more thinly viewers are spread among networks, the more difficult it is for advertisers to reach them. While there may be parity between cable networks and broadcast networks in quality, there is hardly parity in cost-per-thousands. For years advertisers did — and to a large degree still do — treat cable as one large amorphous mass, hardly differentiating from one network to the next. (Bad advertiser joke: What’s the difference between USA and TNT? The letters.) Advertisers bought — still do in many cases — run-of-schedules, not bothering to differentiate from one show to the next. All they cared about was building cumulative impressions. For cable networks, this had the sorry effect of diluting CPMs and, consequently, revenue. So, they started to spend big bucks on program development. David Grant, president of Fox Television Studios, explains, “It’s a myth that basic cable can’t afford good programming. It has two revenue streams, and if you line up all the networks one after another, including broadcast networks, then you’d certainly find basic cable up near the top of the heap in terms of profitability. And many of them are more profitable than broadcast networks.” For a good chunk of cable’s history, many networks didn’t want to pay for expensive programming “because they didn’t necessarily believe advertisers were going to pay for it. They couldn’t get past the numbers or the mentality of ‘why do it?’ And when they did, and succeeded, they said, ‘Oh my God, I can do this.’ It was a cycle and they started believing in themselves and started to understand that having great programming is worth it, and that viewers really do care.” Universal’s Jackson correctly adds that “you’ve got something which has been gathering pace over the last few years, and that is a very mobile audience, which isn’t any longer tied to the apron strings of the broadcast networks and is willing to go anywhere if it smells like particularly good narrative programming.” The history of cable’s Emmy lust, however, long predates this development. One could argue that it goes all the way back to 1978, when cable — or rather, the NCTA — was forced to create the Ace Awards, a sort of shadow award that would have none of the heft or prestige of the Emmy but was at least better than nothing. HBO would win the bulk of Aces though, which would accelerate the rest of the cable industry’s disenchantment with them. They were finally dumped in ’97 — ten years after HBO had forced the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to open its doors to cable — and few outside cable even noticed that the Aces were gone. “It’s clear that the Emmy represents the gold standard of television, and whether you’re in cable or out of it, if you win an Emmy, it’s like winning the Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” says Bryce Zabel, Academy chairman and himself a TV producer. “It allows viewers and advertisers to look at your product and say, ‘it is of quality,’ and that’s the bedrock that the Emmy rests upon that makes it such a coveted award.” He’s right, but there’s much more to it than that. Over ten years, HBO effectively cornered the market on Emmys, which it set about to do by design. HBO’s singular insight was that Emmys would create buzz, and that buzz would be reflected in the press. Subscribers — and potential subscribers — would come to view the Emmy, either consciously or subconsciously, as reason to pay a monthly stipend. (Don’t have HBO? With all those Emmys, there must be something you’re missing.) The Emmy thus became central to building distribution and reducing churn. And so, the Emmys-as-vital-marketing-tool reached full flower at HBO. The broadcast networks did — and continue to — whine bitterly about HBO’s presumed advantage in the nomination process. Observers say there may be some merit to the complaint but add that the broadcast networks’ frugality may also be to blame. A campaign in support of a particular show works this way: HBO pays the Academy to send out dubbed tapes to voting members, and depending on the category, can also structure targeted mailing to members as well. There’s a set fee for this process, which can run into many hundreds of thousands of dollars. HBO, naturally, declines to say how much it spends on Emmy campaigns (which also include paid promotion). But it clearly runs into the millions each year. It is money well spent, but it is not money that the broadcast networks spend themselves. As one observer notes, “TV networks don’t mount campaigns, but the company that owns the show does. The difference is, the cable folks may be sending out their own shows.” In other words, Warner Bros. is spending the money to get The West Wing before the Academy member, not NBC. As everyone correctly points out, none of this would make any difference if the shows the cable folks are sending out were not any good. But they are, and cable’s newfound Emmy aggressiveness has merely helped achieve parity that did not exist before. As Abbe Raven, EVP/GM of A&E Network, puts it, “What I think it does, and this is the value of them, is that it validates when you get recognized for really outstanding work. Awards are icing on the cake.” “If you do an entire [Emmy] campaign, it can get very expensive,” says Barbara Fisher, EVP of programming for Lifetime. “To submit is relatively inexpensive on a cost-per-entry basis, but it depends how far you go with your campaign. Sometimes it’s important to support things that are extraordinary, but I don’t think it should be the programming strategy.” No one disputes that, but executives argue that Emmys and other marquee awards confer a whole range of benefits. Like HBO, they help build distribution, but they also bring more advertisers into the fold — advertisers who might not have even paid attention to cable. “It’s a huge win in awareness,” says Jeff Lucas, president of sales for Universal Television Networks. “It catapults us to a new level. It’s unbelievable what an award can do. When we walk into an agency and start to talk about Monk and Dead Zone, the first thing they usually bring up is how much they love Tony Shalhoub. And then they’ll bring up the award. And if they don’t mention it, we mention it before leaving the room.” “Last summer we made a small movie [Door to Door], and while it certainly didn’t break the financial bank, it broke the emotional bank,” says Steve Koonin, EVP/GM of TNT. “The benefits of being nominated accrue back to our partner [in the movie], Johnson & Johnson, because they are all about quality and trust. At the end of the day, we’re investing in these movies because the more we put in the more we get out of the marketplace, and we do get a premium for our programming.” And yes, there is at least one other vital intangible — the producer, the star and the creator. These are the people who sweat out the big expensive projects and who — in the back of their minds — may be wondering: Why cable when I could have settled for more exposure on a major TV network? The big award tells them that just maybe it’s worth it after all. “Sci Fi has changed the consciousness that this was not a place where award-winning programming was going to happen,” says Richard Rubinstein, the veteran producer (Frank Herbert’s Dune) who has just wrapped Children of Dune, to air this spring. “They’ve proven to me and everyone else that we’d better do everything we have to make people aware [of Dune] because we have a chance of winning. They’ve told me in no uncertain terms that they’re recognizing and supporting it in ways that are competitive with every other entry. I’m pleased about that.”

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