In 2011, the Television Academy was late in organizing that year’s Primetime Emmy Awards because it took nine months of negotiations to close an eight-year, $66 million deal with the four major broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox—to carry the awards show. The broadcasters, who had gone out of the longform business, complained that a third of the Primetime Emmy ceremony—the portion featuring the movie and miniseries categories—served as an advertisement for cable. It didn’t help that little-known cable series, such as then-reigning drama winner Mad Men, which had 2 to 3 million viewers, were upstaging more popular broadcast series. The networks felt Emmy ratings suffered as a result.
A few months later the broadcast nets landed a supporter at the top of the TV Academy when Bruce Rosenblum, then head of Warner Brothers TV Group—one of the biggest broadcast suppliers with such hit series as Friends, ER and The Big Bang Theory—was elected chairman and CEO.
Now, almost halfway through the eight-year Emmy deal, the broadcasters are as unhappy as they were during the 2010-2011 negotiations. They’re back in the longform game, but the drama field—once a stronghold of broadcast shows, such as four-time winners Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and The West Wing—has become the new battleground.
For a third straight year, there is not one commercial broadcast series in the top drama category.
To see a show that has drawn as much critical praise as CBS’ The Good Wife this past season not get nominated is pretty disheartening for the broadcasters. Adding to their disappointment is the fact that one of the TV Academy’s all-time favorite contenders, James Spader, didn’t get a nomination for his show-stopping role on NBC’s The Blacklist, after stints on The Practice and Boston Legal nabbed him four noms and three wins.
The divide between broadcast and cable is running so deep that the CableAce Awards—the cable industry’s trophy fest that ran from 1978 until 1997, was brought up twice during the recent Television Critics Association summer press tour.
“Let’s bring back the CableACE Awards,” NBC’s Bob Greenblatt joked. CBS’ Nina Tassler added, “I want to be the first person at the head of the line to bring them back.”
With few or no content restrictions, cable networks and digital platforms such as Netflix and Amazon can push the envelope creatively, something broadcast networks can’t, bound by FCC restrictions. “Cable has the advantage of doing shows that are darker, more interesting on some levels and that go into subject matter that just feels cooler than some of the stuff we can do. It’s just a fact of life,” Greenblatt said.
When Seth Meyers, this year’s Emmy host, and broadcast veteran of SNL and now Late Night With Seth Meyers, recently was asked about his favorite shows, he rattled off True Detective, Mad Men, Fargo, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Portlandia, Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer. There was not one single broadcast show on the list.
What also has become a hot-button issue is the number of episodes produced per season. Of the six series nominated for best drama, five ran on seasons of 10 episodes or less: AMC’s Mad Men (7), HBO’s True Detective and AMC’s Breaking Bad (8 each), PBS’ Downton Abbey (9) and HBO’s Game of Thrones (10). Ironically, the only show that doesn’t air on TV, Netflix’s House of Cards, had the most episodes with 13. Compare that to the 22 episodes that The Good Wife produces every season. CBS TV Studios built the show’s Emmy campaign around that distinction, but it didn’t sway Emmy voters.
The discrepancy in the amount of content that cable and broadcasters churn out is so big there are calls to divide the drama series race into separate cable and broadcast categories. The BroadcastAce awards, anyone? That seems unlikely, Rosenblum said during an Emmy panel at TCA, though he acknowledged that “it’s incumbent upon us to step back and take a look at the rules.” However, Rosenblum also said “it’s less that the rules have become more fluid. I think what’s happened is that our industry’s evolved. If you look at the kinds of shows that are being produced and the networks that are ordering shows today—we didn’t have Netflix ordering shows. You didn’t have HBO ordering eight episodes of a series like True Detective.”
Tassler would support potential Emmy rule changes that could include further expanding the number of best drama series nominees to as many as 10, something employed for the Academy Awards’ best picture category. “You look at what The Good Wife does every year. We have 22 episodes,” she says. “You look at our primetime, our production schedules. They are so much more demanding, so much more difficult. And look, at the end of the day, right now everybody is playing in the same sandbox. But I think it’s something that is being talked about.”
How do you reconcile the fact that a broadcast drama has to produce in 10 months as many episodes as three of the best drama series nominees combined? And some of the nominated shows had more than a year to do it. Rosenblum and his team have their work cut out for them.
Speaking of evolution, Rosenblum himself is not where he was when he was elected as TV Academy chairman. He is now the head of Legendary TV. The company just landed its first pilot, a drama called Colony. Ironically, it is on cable, at USA Network.