Broadcast or cable: who was Emmy's big winner?

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How relevant is the broadcast vs. cable argument come Emmy time?

I think it’s both relevant and irrelevant.

This year’s Emmy voters seemed to be making the point that the best show and the best performance wins, which is why we got so many first-time winners and upsets. For example, instead of handing The Amazing Race its eighth Emmy because that was the easy thing to do, voters seemed to take a hard look at the entries and give the award to the most deserving, the most original show in Bravo’s Top Chef. That’s true for most of the other wins: from Jim Parsons’ overdue and deserved win for The Big Bang Theory to Kyra Sedgwick’s for The Closer, which she won after being nominated for the four previous years, to two newcomers Jane Lynch of Glee and Archie Panjabi of The Good Wife.

The night was full of wins that TV critics and industry watchers seemed to unanimously agree – via Twitter – were the correct choices. Modern Family, Glee, The Big Bang Theory all dominated the early show, causing industry watchers to wonder: is broadcast back?

As the night wore on, cable’s wins outpaced broadcast’s. This has been theorized ever since TheSopranos arrived on the scene, but I do think cable has the edge because it is able to go to edgier places – look at two of tonight’s big winners: Breaking Bad and Mad Men. And even if the FCC allowed broadcast to go to those places, I’m not sure audiences would. We expect one thing from broadcast – broad, accessible entertainment – and another thing from cable. Often what we expect and look for from cable are shows that are more literary and more challenging. The writing and acting can be more profound, profane and subtle on cable and that’s what gets critics’ notice. But those sorts of shows often don’t win viewers – Mad Men’s audience is notoriously small – but they do win awards. Broadcast networks want those awards as badly as anyone, but they want and need the audiences far more.

That’s why HBO won virtually every movie and mini-series award: HBO can and must afford to put money into high-quality programs because that’s what brings paying subscribers. People who will pay for TV want to pay for high quality, so HBO isn’t just making great TV for its own edification; it’s making great TV to keep its subscribers happy and to attract new ones. The Emmys is the greatest advertisement HBO could ask for.

ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC would certainly love to produce such programs, but funding a hugely expensive project like The Pacific is nearly impossible for them. These networks don’t have the ability to run a 10-part mini-series over and over again, and they can’t earn back even the cost of production – much less make a profit – if they only run this sort of event programming once.  Made-for-TV movies and mini-series are nearly a lost art because only a few networks can financially justify their production.

That’s why I was glad to see tonight’s show wrap up with a Modern Family win: it’s a modern spin on the traditional family sitcom that’s broadly appealing and highly comedic but it’s high enough quality to catch critics’ notice and adoration. Producing a show that manages all of that in today’s TV landscape is more of a challenge than making Mad Men.  

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