What do awards shows and the economy have in common?

Both could use a makeover

Here's what struck me about the Emmys.

It happened at the NBC party the night before as I chatted with a 16-year-old from somewhere in California that's not Los Angeles, the niece of one of the executives present. She was fuzzy about what NBC actually was (a cable channel?), who Dick Wolf was (that black actor on "ER"?) and what "30 Rock" was, let alone was the title was a reference to.

She did immediately spot Lindsay Lohan in the crowd, which is more than I could have done. And she does watch "Gossip Girl" -- on her computer.

I don't say this condescendingly, just as one more indication of just how quickly broadcasting is fraying at the seams as young people tune out traditional media. It's also a telling sign that award shows of all kinds really do need a radical and much more interactive makeover.

And that doesn't just mean making the three-hour shows shorter and/or pacing them more effectively. What happened with the Emmy extravaganza, as well as with recent editions of other awards shows, is that the efficiency experts have managed to take all the fun and quirkiness out of these productions. Thus, we had a lot of the fun people (Tom Hanks included) hurried offstage because the first half was bogged down with too many lesser categories as well as the flatulent opening segment with the five unfunny hosts.

In any case, when you're sitting in the audience at the Emmys and the interstitials onscreen during the commercial breaks -- featuring hilarious moments from earlier ceremonies -- are more amusing than what's being done live, there's a problem.

News flash for those who missed it Wednesday: the Motion Picture Academy has hired the "Dreamgirls" duo of producer Laurence Mark and writer-director Bill Condon to mastermind the Oscar show Feb. 22; that astute decision, obviously months in the making but also fortuitous this week, should bode well. At least we know the musical numbers will be good.

There are, of course, thornier issues than just awards-show ratings to worry about this season.

Let's start with the fiasco on Wall Street, which even if the government gets the go-ahead to pump $700 billion into those flailing banks is still going to impact Main Street, Madison Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard for many months if not years to come.

The penny-pinching in Hollywood is still subtle, but have you noticed the bagels disappearing from those early-morning breakfast meetings or how many Mercedes are skipping the valet and parking on the street? Such measures might become routine among the middle-manager ranks around town, just as it briefly did during the three-month WGA strike in the winter.

On a larger scale, those advertising dollars pouring into the TV market because of the election will dry up after November, at which point we will see just how negatively so many Dow companies (the big traditional advertisers) have been impacted by the downturn and whether they revert to form and cut the traditional line item of marketing and promotion.

Meanwhile, pitching to the broadcast networks has become an arduous and often thankless task as these many layers of folks who weigh in on what gets made have gotten ever antsier about risk-taking.

"You used to be able to call up and hear that a network exec had three slots to fill, you described a project and a couple of names attached, and you were in," WMA head of worldwide nonscripted programming John Ferriter said on a panel this week. "Nowadays, you have to come with a complete package, practically the show produced, in order to get picked up."

He and his fellow panelists described what they think is an interesting template for how things will develop as this rigid network model continues to take hits. It's what the CW has done with its Sunday night schedule, giving it over to an outside supplier -- in this case MRC -- to program. They imagine that other such opportunities for independent producers will open up on other nets, especially on such challenged nights as Friday and Saturday.

Meanwhile, the painfully put-together primetime season finally has kicked into gear, with promising ratings performances for escapist fare including the latest J.J. Abrams drama "Fringe" on Fox and the seventh cycle of ABC's "Dancing With the Stars."

"I don't see how anything downbeat is going to thrive in the ratings this fall" was the view of another TV executive this week, who said he is placing his bets on sitcoms and upbeat reality shows to do well.

And "Life on Mars"? Probably better than being here right now.
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