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Emmy Preview: Wings of Desire

This year's Emmys arrive at a key juncture for the TV academy

 

John Shaffner likes the Emmys right where they are.

Shaffner, chairman and CEO of the television academy, knows that September's 61st Primetime Emmy Awards is the last before the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences sits down with the major broadcast networks -- and possibly others -- to negotiate a new contract to replace the "wheel" that rotates the telecast among ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. The current deal expires after the 2010 show.

But despite flirtations with cable nets during the last round of negotiations, Shaffner doesn't see television's biggest night abandoning the Big Four anytime soon.

"We want the broadcasters who can reach the largest audience," Shaffner says. "I think for the foreseeable future that's still going to be the case. There's nowhere else you can accumulate an audience like those who've been watching "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars."

The prospect of a new broadcast deal on the horizon is adding significance to this year's Emmys, set for Sept. 20 at L.A.'s Nokia Theatre and airing on CBS.

The kudocast is coming off one of the lowest-rated years in its history amid a general lag in ratings for awards shows, though it remains one of TV's most-valuable events and a key venue for the medium to promote itself. A boost in ratings this year could help ATAS maintain its license fee or extract more money when negotiations begin next summer.

Last year's show also was not a hit with critics, with many lambasting the decision to turn hosting duties over to a team of five reality-show personalities. TV insiders are looking to see how the show will rebound creatively this year, especially since five-time producer Ken Ehrlich has been replaced by awards vet Don Mischer.

The success of the Emmys is no small matter for ATAS. According to its most recent IRS public filing in 2007, the nonprofit takes in $20.9 million in revenue annually, and more than $17 million of it comes from the Emmys.

Domestic and international Emmy license fees support not only ATAS but also provide a portion of the budget for the philanthropic Academy Foundation, which received at least $1.7 million of 2007 revenue, and the New York-based National Academy, which received $850,000 to help it put on events and Emmy shows for news, sports and local productions, among others.

When the contract last came up in 2005, premium cabler HBO made a bold bid for the show. The move reflected how strongly cable programming now competes with broadcast for Emmy recognition (and viewer eyeballs), but in the end the academy stuck with broadcast. The net carrying the show currently pays a $7.5 million license fee each year. Foreign license rights in more than 100 countries bring in an additional $4 million.

If a premium cable net or, more likely, a basic cabler like TNT or USA, wants in on the Emmy telecast, ATAS officials say they will look for creative ways to include them. And they also are evaluating strategies to grow the event via new media.

"I think in the next round (of negotiations) a lot of attention will be paid to the Internet and to mobile," says Alan Perris, the academy's COO. "There will be a three-screen look instead of just the broadcast window."

"We can try as we develop our Web sites to make them more accessible with a lot of digital information," Shaffner says. "Everybody wants to know more. We have an audience that is hungry for as much information they can get. You watch any award shows, everybody's at home on their computer looking up what else (winners and presenters) have they done, where do they live, how many kids do they have ... "

One of the challenges the show faces in trying to boost ratings is the dominance of football on NBC on Sunday nights in the fall.

"The (Emmy) ratings would probably be up by 30% if we weren't playing opposite football," Shaffner says. "But that's life."

And it doesn't look to get any easier on Sept. 20. "We're going to be up against the New York Giants, from the No. 1 market, traveling to the opening of the new Dallas Cowboys stadium," Perris says. "It's the luck of the draw. The week before I think it's Chicago and Minnesota, which I can tell you won't have the same ratings as New York and Dallas. We got nailed again this year."

Much of the burden to lure viewers will fall on CBS. Unlike the Oscars, which are produced by the motion picture academy and carried on the same broadcast channel under an exclusive license, the Emmys have a new network and producer each year.

ATAS head of marketing Laurel Whitcomb says the organization started conversations with CBS in January about joint marketing efforts and how to recover from last year's problems with the show. She says the good news is that research done right after that telecast indicated the Emmys continue to enjoy a high public awareness level (88%) and viewers are motivated to find out if their favorite shows win.

"I think everyone is aware of it," Whitcomb says. "We're up against football, as we were last year. But I'm gratified there's such a huge amount of awareness about the Emmys out there, so that is one battle we don't have to fight. We have to entice that audience and get them excited about the show and the races that are going this year."

CBS says it is too early to know what it will do with the show. CBS Corp. chairman Leslie Moonves has been a longtime champion of the Emmys, even playing a major role in negotiating the current licensing deal.

"Les has already said to John Shaffner they want this to be a great celebration of television because there is so much good on television," Perris says. "People are critical of certain things that aren't good, so it's nice to uplift yourself when it is good."

Shaffner sees other positive signs.

"It's interesting to note that both the Grammys and Oscars did well this past year, considering that HUT (homes using TV) levels were down, and most recently the Academy of Country Music Awards did quite well," he says. "So what's it mean for the Emmys? In the old days everybody sat down and watched the big award shows. Now it is more of a niche market."

But in the end, Shaffner hopes that niche market remains large, and that the Emmys remain on the greatest possible stage.

"I'm very hopeful that the broadcast networks will be interested in keeping this opportunity to promote television across the board," he says. "I'm pretty hopeful that everybody will get together (for the negotiations) and will realize the Emmys aren't just about the television academy. It's about the television community and our need to promote and recognize great work, and get together and sit around the campfire."