Daytime Emmys: The show must go on

3:40 PM PST 08/27/2009 by Randee Dawn, AP

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The saga of the Daytime Emmys sounds a lot like -- well, a soap opera.

It starts with the tangled relationship between the Daytime Emmys and broadcasters. After years of dismal ratings for the telecast, last year's show dropped 40% to a mere 5.4, and the Big Three networks announced a divorce. It was a breakup with the seismic resonance of a Luke and Laura split ... and by the time NATAS president and chief marketing officer Frank Radice rode in to fix things in December, it was also embarrassing: The show had no home for 2009.

"We're called the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences," he says. "I felt strongly the Daytime Emmy Awards needed to be on television."

And as with a proper soap story, the months that followed featured last-minute rescues, hidden agendas and even a surprise plot twist. But the 36th annual Daytime Emmy Awards prevailed and airs Sunday on the CW.

The production/distribution model ultimately put together by NATAS, producers Associated Television International, MGM Worldwide Television Distribution and the CW might have shown the way toward a new model all awards shows will eventually adopt.

Had this happened just a few years ago, says Lynn Leahey, editorial director for Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly, "it would have been a huge black eye" for the industry. "But in contrast with what's going on with the economy in the rest of the country, it's not that surprising. The thing with these awards (shows) is: the cost doesn't go down, but with ratings going down, broadcasters can't support (them)."

Without that broadcast help, Radice started 2009 scrambling to put on a program that traditionally has aired in June. Initially he considered sticking to that scenario with a New York-based event that could serve as a longform webcast, but says this was never more than a "backup plan."

Yet there was no Plan A until producers Associated Television International, which has produced TV series, specials and feature films for more than 30 years, stepped in. It turned out that the heads of ATI were, unexpectedly, daytime fans.

"I reached out to a lot of friends I've had over the years and said, 'Hey, we need to band together and make a statement that we all know daytime is important, and we want the studios and the networks and the people in this business to know we don't want this to go away,' " says ATI president David McKenzie, who will be one of the executive producers of this year's awards show.

One of those friends was Jim Packer, co-president of MGM Worldwide Television Distribution, which among other things, provides programming on Sunday nights for the CW (usually in the form of a movie).

"The market is tough nowadays," Packer says. "Some of the broadcast networks simply aren't ponying up large license fees like they used to, so you have to be creative. But people still value live events, and the CW looked at it as a win-win for them, too."

But Packer didn't just ask CW if they could pretty please make room on the network; he, McKenzie and Radice hammered out a deal in which the program would be fully financed and then given to the network, which would then have room to place some promotional ads of its own and would be one of the four revenue sharers in any earnings.

Radice emphasizes this was a "strategic partnership."

"I've never seen a deal as big as this put together as fast as we did," he says. "I felt like the majority whip on Capitol Hill, pushing a bill through."

The benefits for the network are clear: CW skews female, as does the Daytime Emmys, notes CW entertainment president Dawn Ostroff. "(The Daytime Emmys is) a well-established brand that possesses a core female following similar to our own. (Additionally), it provides us with a promotional platform to launch our fall 2009 schedule in early September."

Ultimately, the deal hammered out was not quite syndication and not quite barter, but some hybrid, and has echoes in history -- "I Love Lucy" was largely financed by Lucy and Desi Arnaz rather than CBS, but they were given full ownership of the series. It's the kind of creative model poised to make a comeback beyond branded entertainment as networks tighten belts.

"Networks are desperate for content, but they don't want to spend their money producing things, in case (they) might not work," says Jeff Caperton, managing partner and executive producer at Spindle Top Films, a production house that often writes deals for their features and reality TV shows this way. "This is an extremely low-risk model for networks to get their programming, and it gets the awards program on the air. You're going to see more of that creeping up the corporate food chain."

Contentwise, this year's show should remain very similar to previous years: Vanessa Williams will host and be involved "in a couple of big production numbers," according to Radice; "Sesame Street" will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, and just shy of 20 statuettes will be handed out.

But there's a twist in the tale. ATI stands to recoup no more than it doles out to put on the program: any net earnings are going to Feed the Children. In fact, the entire Daytime Emmys program is being built around the concept of charity, says McKenzie, whose company has made a commitment to do at several television shows each year that are "socially responsible."

"We don't want to make any money on the event," he says. "Our goal is to keep (it) on the air, and if any money is seen, we're donating it."

And what of the other major awards down the road? Shows like the Golden Globes and Oscars are safe in their broadcast berths, though they and the Primetime Emmys are also experiencing ratings slides. Additionally, the Primetime Emmys this year have been beset by controversy over whether cable networks should get a shot at airing the telecast. All of this seems to make the Daytime Emmys the canary in the coalmine for future executive producers, networks and studios.

"This show could be a real guinea pig," Leahey admits. "If they can make this work, if people can walk away with some kind of revenue, you may see other things pop up like this. It is a clever way to do it."

Radice would still like to do it the old way, he admits, with license fees smoothing the way for production. But he's a realist.

"What happened this year is a red flag for everyone," he says. "I think this is going to be seen as a model for everybody when these situations happen to them. I don't know where anyone else is in terms of contracts or license agreements. But these are businesspeople. They will look at us and say, 'Wow, that's an interesting way of doing this.' "
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