ATAS: Basic Cable Boom Could Hurt Emmy Ratings


The explosion of basic cable Emmy nominations on July 17 may be a boon for the industry, but it could mean ratings troubles for this year's Emmy Awards telecast, which will air Sept. 21.

While AMC's Mad Men led all dramas this year with 16 nominations and is enjoying a complete love affair with critics and those who watch it, the show averaged around a million viewers per episode in its first season. And many believe viewers tune in to award shows in bigger numbers if they have a rooting interest.

Among those with that belief is Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) Senior VP of Awards John Leverence, who spoke with B&C about what the basic cable success means for Emmy ratings, the effect of the strike and why going without a host for the show might not matter. Following is an edited transcript.

What will the explosion of cable
mean to Emmy viewership if relatively few people watch those shows?

In that respect, we make our ratings bed and we lie in it. If you take the model of the Oscars, you cannot unreasonably apply it to a ratings model for the Emmys. And home screeners have basically turned the Oscars from a studio vehicle into an art-house vehicle. And with a smaller audience aware of them, you have a decrease in rooting interest, which I consider to be a major factor in drawing audiences. Give me a Titanic and I will give you huge ratings; give me a Crash and I will give you diminished ratings.

So will ratings suffer?

I would say that if we had 20 categories on-air, and American Idol and Dancing With the Stars and House and huge mass-market programs were in there, there would be higher rooting interest. But we need to do other things. As far as rooting interest, there will be a diminishment, no doubt about it, and that will have ratings consequences.

But your first priority isn't ratings.

Yes, that's the only way the Emmy voters can respond. If you had a People's Choice Award, those people respond differently. If you have members of the Academy who are professionals and artists, their default position will always go toward the highest quality. Even though it might not be to our greater ratings benefit, they are going to go for that.

What is the significance of all the basic cable nominations this year?

I think there is a general sense that basic cable has turned a big corner today, and has come of age with the breaking of the glass ceiling into the formerly hostile and definitely alien territory of drama series with Damages and Mad Men. There is a new player in town.

Why all the basic cable nominations this year?

I think Emmy is always reactive. We're definitely reactive to a new reality in basic cable as well as the broader landscape. What was the effect of the strike? This is not an unreasonable question. Viewers were looking around a little more, because shows like 24 weren't on, so OK, maybe I'll watch Mad Men or Damages.

You are discussing not having a host for this year's show. Is that really a possibility?

It's something that's been done before, and we've had combinations of hosts. [Executive producer] Kenny [Erlich] may or may not decide to do this. It's so iffy, it's a hard question to answer. There very well might be a person who on paper would look great, and they go wooden on you. Nobody knows anything about hosts.

So did the voters get it right?

You could always say where's Ugly Betty or Desperate Housewives, and that's fair. But you tell me which of the others nominated should be thrown out. It's an impossible situation to accommodate the quality of programs and performers.