Emmy Watch: Drama

Can a series chase both Emmys and ratings?

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It's the year after the Big Breakthrough at the Primetime Emmy Awards. The question is no longer how long it will be until there's drama series parity between broadcast and cable networks, but rather whether the Big Four can compete in this category on even terms any more.

The creative freedom afforded cable nets by their niche audiences and lax content standards is even causing some to ask whether a drama series can still generate ratings numbers and Emmy buzz in equal measure. In comedy, it's the shows with a relatively small and elite audience such as NBC's "30 Rock" and "The Office" and Fox's short-lived "Arrested Development," that most recently have generated the Emmy attention. And with the recent slew of critical hits on cable, the same may well be in the offing in the outstanding drama series category as well.

The triumph of AMC's "Mad Men" in 2008 might portend the dawn of an era of cable dramas with comparatively tiny followings earning the lion's share of Emmy love. When it became the first non-HBO cable series to earn the outstanding drama series trophy last year, it did so while averaging fewer than a million viewers a week. A second cable series that that is considered a favorite this year, FX's "Damages," averaged fewer than 2 million viewers weekly for its original hours during its second season.

Contrast this with the last pair of broadcast network dramas to earn the biggest Emmy prize: Fox's "24," which averaged about 13.8 million viewers the year it won (2006); and ABC's "Lost," with an average weekly audience of 15.7 million in the 2004-05 season. (It won the Emmy in 2005.) NBC's "The West Wing" was in the Nielsen top 25 during each of the four consecutive years -- 2000-03 -- when it earned the top drama series statuette.

And when NBC's "ER" won its lone drama honor in 1996, it was the top-ranked series in all of television with more than 30 million weekly viewers.

Not unlike the Oscars in the age of the specialty division, the Emmys might be finished honoring popular mainstream dramas.

"It's sort of the way the system is now built," says Steven Bochco, producer of such TV classics as "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue" and the recipient of an eye-popping 34 career Emmy nominations (and 10 wins). "It's really the difference between working in a department store and a boutique shop. In cable, you get more attention. You get more respect. You get more of an opportunity -- win, lose or draw -- to realize your vision and not be forced to survive on the day-to-day, moment-to-moment whims of somebody."

Bochco doesn't believe the Emmy scale will tip back to broadcast network dramas anytime soon. He's now operating in the cable world as executive producer of the TNT's "Raising the Bar."

"Would it be nice to have a third more money to spend? Absolutely," Bochco admits. "We could do a lot of things with it. But I think cable drama is proving consistently that telling a good story is not money intensive. It's effort intensive and creative intensive. A lot of us are doing extraordinary work, or at a minimum really solid work, for two-thirds of the cost or less of what a broadcast puts in -- and doing it better."

But broadcast is making its own quality impact. CBS' freshman drama "The Mentalist," for example, shows that it remains possible to mount a compelling drama series that is a recognized hit straight out of the gate.

But will it be honored with an Emmy?

Interestingly, that show's creator and executive producer, Bruno Heller, has moved easily between broadcast and cable. He created and produced HBO's "Rome," served as producer of the USA Network series "Touching Evil" and took on NBC's 2007 reimagining of "Bionic Woman." With "Mentalist," he was interested to see if he could succeed with a series concept that's less slick and high-concept by design.

"I'd already done a cable show," Heller says, "and I was interested in making a drama that got away from the little crutches and devices you have with cable. The shock factor and titillation factor are always part of the cable equation. And the reality is, whether consciously or unconsciously, on cable you're always competing for the critical acclaim of the coastal audience that creates buzz."

Working on a primetime network show, Heller believes, affords him the opportunity to be "much less concerned about buzz and more with making something people everywhere might want to watch. Fortunately, they are. So perhaps my instinct was correct."

Plus, receiving kudos for raising the creative ante doesn't mean your audience must be measured in morsels -- even on cable. TNT's "The Closer" has been praised as one of TV's great drama series, and at the same time the show's Season 3 finale in September was seen in more than 7.5 million homes, making it ad-supported cable's most-viewed scripted show of all time.

James Duff, the outspoken creator and executive producer of "The Closer," firmly believes that NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox have been left chasing cable's artistic lead.

"You can tell stories on cable that don't have happy endings," Duff says. "Your show can be led by the story instead of by the executive, and that allows the audience to enjoy it unfiltered."

Vince Gilligan, who worked as a writer and producer on Fox's "The X-Files" before creating and producing AMC's second-year drama "Breaking Bad," says he sometimes can't believe he was able to sell a series about a middle-age chemistry teacher dying of lung cancer who turns to making crystal meth.

"We had an episode this season that included a scene where a man's decapitated head was grafted onto the back of a tortoise and rigged with explosives," Gilligan marvels. "It still amazes me that this show ever made it onto the air. And the only reason it did is you don't have to appeal to every member of the audience on basic cable, or pay, due to the composition of the audience."

The luxury of not needing to be all things to all people means AMC "doesn't have to throw a shallow net over the viewing mass," Gilligan adds. "That makes the dramas more interesting, more original. Our show turns off a lot of people, and that's OK. We don't need to have everyone in the tent to survive. Not that we'd mind having them."

Broadcast programs, of course, do require far more viewers to satisfy sponsors. But the networks are beginning to open up to more creative ways to grow that audience. NBC, in particular, seems particularly determined to blow up the old primetime business model, as demonstrated by its decision last year to go into business with satcaster DirecTV to keep the beloved but ratings-starved drama "Friday Night Lights" in production.

The deal made "FNL" the first original primetime series to be subsidized by DirecTV. In return for its agreement to defray costs, the satcaster aired the 13 episodes of Season 3 in their entirety on its 101 Network before NBC ran them on Wednesday nights. It worked out so well that a new agreement was forged for 26 more episodes of "Lights," spread over two seasons.

"It's paid off for us and we're pleased with it," says Eric Shanks, DirecTV's entertainment executive vp. "We're happy to kind of play the part we do in the equation." The show's executive producer Jason Kamins adds that the critical success of his show has helped it last. "If this sets a benchmark for other quality shows that otherwise wouldn't have survived without this kind of relationship, I'll be very proud."

This, then, would appear to launch the era of hybrid-platform shows that are neither strictly broadcast nor strictly cable (or, in this case, broadcast or satellite). And NBC is taking it one step further. With its controversial decision to move "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno into the 10 p.m. period five nights a week this fall, the network is -- at least temporarily -- going out of the drama production business for that hour.

A largely ignored consequence of the move will be its impact on NBC's Emmy dominion. During the past 30 years, shows airing in the 10 p.m. period have collectively yielded for NBC a total of 522 nominations, or more than 17 a year on average. Of those, 96 were converted to wins.

We should see within a few months if it's still possible for a drama that's perceived a breakout mainstream hit to thrive on the same Emmy playing field as the cable offerings. To be sure, "The Mentalist" has averaged, as a rookie, better than 17 million viewers weekly, placing it firmly in the weekly Nielsen top 10 from its first week on the air in September.

The show's producer Heller wouldn't mind some Emmy attention. But at the same time he maintains it isn't his priority.

"I like to think that our show would have become big no matter where it surfaced," Heller says. "We have a genuine TV star in Simon Baker who is giving the performance of his life every week in a truly great role. That's what really ought to dictate whether the people and the critics embrace you or not."