Winning an Emmy: It's More Than Just a Golden Statue


Do the Emmy Awards really matter? It depends.

As Sunday's broadcast on ABC underscored, prestige means a lot in Hollywood. Media companies such as ABC parent Walt Disney (DIS) relentlessly promote the fact that a show is an Emmy Award winner to help sell commercial time.

Advertisers, for their part, enjoy the bragging rights of being associated with hot shows such as "Glee" on News Corp's Fox (NWS), CBS' (CBS) "The Good Wife" and ABC's "Modern Family." Most television commercials are sold based on demographics rather than specific programs and picking a hit remains just as much of a crap shoot as ever.

Ratings vs. Awards

Critical acclaim, though, is never enough to keep a show on the air. Just ask fans of Fox's cerebral sitcom "Arrested Development", whose six Emmys helped it avoid the ax until 2006. A cult following and Emmy nominations failed to save Conan O'Brien's career at General Electric's (GE) NBC though it might help his new show on TNT. Ratings for "Damages", the legal thriller starring Glenn Close and Ted Danson, were so dismal on Fox's FX network that many TV fans figured it was a goner. Turns out they were wrong: DirecTV (DTV) agreed to rescue the show, which is up for five Emmys, for two more seasons. The catch is that it will only be shown on DirecTV which, as Robert Seidman of TV by the Numbers points out, would not have picked up the program if Close hadn't already won two Emmys.

"Awards and critical acclaim definitely matter to the broadcast networks but, in the end, ratings rule the day," Seidman wrote in an email. "[Awards are] a much bigger deal for cable channels, so it makes more of a difference for "Mad Men", "Breaking Bad" and TNT's "Men of a Certain Age." Would AMC stick with shows that are relatively low-rated if they weren't bringing in critical acclaim and winning the awards that give cable channels more recognition and more leverage in carriage fee negotiations?"

Television networks are sometimes willing to let shows build an audience. Media researcher Shari Anne Brill notes that ratings for "House" more than doubled after Fox put it on after "American Idol." NBC stuck with "Hill Street Blues" after it got good reviews despite low ratings and before the pioneering police drama came back stronger in the second season.

Though "30 Rock" creator Tina Fey joked about it being "the fifth anniversary of the day NBC forgot to cancel us" when the program's Emmy nominations were announced, experts say there is little chance of that happening now. The sitcom attracts a wealthy and young audience that advertisers covet even though its overall viewership is small. Plus, as Syracuse University television expert Robert Thompson points out, the network stands to make a fortune from Fey's creation in syndication since so few sitcoms are currently being produced.

"It's the only NBC show that my students talk about," says Thompson, who adds that award shows such as the Emmys are "giant promotional, marketing celebrations."

Network Emmy Drought to End?

For broadcast networks, there has been an Emmy drought in recent years thanks to the critical and popular acclaim of "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." "Glee", which received 19 nominations, seems to have a good shot at winning awards because it is so innovative. Among its competitors in the Outstanding Comedy Series are "Modern Family", "30 Rock" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm", which raises the question of whether this is the right category for the show. CBS' "The Good Wife" faces stiff competition from the likes of cable favorites such as "Dexter" and "Breaking Bad" in the best drama category.

In the end, Emmys do count in Hollywood as a way to build a resume and aid marketing. But if the networks have a choice between ratings and acclaim, popularity will win most of the time. Sad but true.