The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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The Emmy Awards: Deja vu all over again

September 22, 2008 | 12:39 pm

Emmy_2It's hard to imagine anyone managed to make it to the end of the interminable (and interminably snoozy) Emmy Awards on Sunday night. But if we could give an award -- let's call it a Snoozy -- to the journalist who made the most sense out of the entire humdrum event, it would go to my colleague Scott Collins, who had a smart front-page story today noting that many of the big awards went to cable programming whose audience barely equals the kind of numbers one "American Idol" episode gets in St. Louis. "Mad Men," which won the Emmy for outstanding drama series, averages roughly 925,000 viewers per episode -- a fraction of the audience that's watching "Lost" or "Two and a Half Men," two of the many network shows that came away empty-handed at the ceremony.

One of the stories in today's Variety echoed that theme, quoting unnamed network executives (in Variety, whenever anyone says anything bad, they always get to say it anonymously) as grumbling that the Emmys have become the Cable Ace Awards. That quip rang a bell. Of course! It's exactly what movie studio executives have been saying about the Academy Awards in recent years, except they derisively call the Oscars the Indy Spirit Awards. There are two Hollywoods -- the Hollywood that makes lots of money and the Hollywood that wins Oscars. In case you forgot the most recent Academy Awards, none of the five best picture nominees was among the year's Top 30 box-office performers (at the time of their nomination last January). And except for "Juno," none of the best picture nominees had made even $50 million before the ceremony.

We've entered an era when award shows like the Emmys and Oscars are increasingly devoted to giving out statuettes to (TV shows and films) whose commercial reach is dwarfed by the big dumb (TV shows and films) that rake in most of the dough. The comparisons are striking. HBO, which made off with huge caches of Emmys in recent years, is a lot like the Miramax Films, circa 1994-2002, that dominated the Oscars. They were both subsidiaries of giant media companies but run by strong, independent leadership that pursued quality craftsmanship over mass-production kitsch.

Reality TV is now a bread 'n' butter item for network TV, but it doesn't get any more respect at Emmy time than the dumb summer comedies that crank out profits for the studios do during Oscar season. As Collins pointed out today, TV networks now shy away from making expensive scripted series and long-form programming. He could've said the same thing about film studios, who've been bailing out of the business of bankrolling costly dramas and historical biopics, the genres that deliver the most Oscar statuettes. 

The big question: Is this so terrible?   

The easy answer is no. Filmmakers and TV showrunners can moan and groan all they want, but the simple truth is that mass audiences today will rarely support daring or brilliant but disturbing work. On the other hand, a smaller but ferociously loyal audience will support adventuresome storytelling, whether it's "30 Rock" or "The Wire" on TV or "No Country For Old Men" or "Pan's Labrynth" in film. Artists simply have to be willing to adjust to a new business model. To put it simply, there are plenty ways to get bold work on TV or in the theaters, as long as you're willing to spend less money doing it than you did five or 10 years ago.

The same goes for the awards shows. Every year, we read dozens of hand-wringing stories about how the Oscars (or the Emmys) are continuing to lose bigger and bigger chunks of their audience. But guess what? So is virtually every other form of mass appeal TV, even perfectly healthy entertainment forms, such as the World Series and the NBA Finals. The whole notion of mass appeal is undergoing radical change right before our very eyes. The answer is not for award shows to water down their standards. As I once joked in the dead-tree version of this paper, Rob Schneider is never going to get an Oscar for Best Penis Jokes by a Third Rate Comic.

If that means the Emmys and Oscars ratings continue to shrink, so be it. They'll survive. They both desperately need to improve the production of their shows -- which is abysmal -- but lowering the quality bar for the actual winners won't fix anything. We are simply evolving into a world with two very different audiences -- the mainstream mass appeal audience, which happily laps up easily digestable fare, and a new niche audience (think indie film/basic cable/Netflicks/iTunes) that is eager for something quirkier or more challenging.

Occasionally the audiences will overlap (think "Juno"), but most of the time, our passions and fascinations are growing further and further apart. We're sort of like partisan Democrats and Republicans, each of us seeing the world in a very different way. It's hard to fall out of the love with the romantic ideal that we could gather around the watercooler and share our thoughts on the same cultural icon of the moment -- as generations did with the Beatles, Walter Cronkite, "Seinfeld," "Friends" and "Titanic." But every time a new awards show rolls around, we are reminded that those days are going, going gone.

Photo of Tina Fey and the cast of "30 Rock" accepting their Emmy for the outstanding comedy series during the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards by Mark Bolster/L.A. Times.