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Emmys Highlight Changing Landscape of Television Business

August 30, 2010 at 6:15 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown gets two perspectives on how the Emmy Awards, television's most prestigious honor, have been signaling a major shift in programming by the major networks and smaller cable channels.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight: the changing landscape of the television business.

Jeffrey Brown looks at what it meant on TV’s big award night.

JEFFREY BROWN: For several years now, the Emmys, TV’s most prestigious awards, have been signaling a major shift in quality programming, from broadcast networks to cable.

TOM SELLECK, Actor: And the Emmy goes to “Mad Men.”

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: And, last night, that shift was still on display.

Among the winners, AMC’s “Mad Men” took home the best drama award for the third year in a row.

ACTOR: Who is Don Draper?

JEFFREY BROWN: Before “Mad Men” came along, in fact, AMC was primarily known for showing classic films. But this year, another AMC series, “Breaking Bad,” took two acting awards, including one for Bryan Cranston.

BRYAN CRANSTON, actor: I feel gluttonous. And I am — I — it’s more than I can take in. It really is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cable also scored when Kyra Sedgwick won the Emmy for lead actress in a drama for her role in the TNT crime series “The Closer.

And perennial winner HBO took yet more statues, including for its World War II-themed “The Pacific,” winner in the best miniseries category.

TOM HANKS, actor: We’re not engineers. We’re artists. We are people that essentially build a campfire, hang around, and we can keep you entertained for 10 hours. That’s what we do.

TED DANSON, actor: And the Emmy goes to “Modern Family.”

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: But, this year, old-fashioned broadcast TV also showed new life. “Modern Family,” ABC’s show about a diverse extended family, won for best comedy series in its first season. It was the first ABC comedy in more than 20 years to receive that award.

STEVEN LEVITAN, co-creator, “Modern Family”: To our fans, we are — we are so grateful. We are so thrilled that families are sitting down together to watch a television show.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another popular new comedy, “Glee” on the FOX Network, picked up two awards. And Jim Parsons of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” was named best lead actor in a comedy series.

This battle for quality and eyeballs, of course, comes amid a much larger and long-term shift in viewing habits, as consumers have ever more entertainment options, including how and where they watch these very television programs.

And for more about the business of cable and broadcast TV, we’re joined by Matthew Belloni, managing editor for features for The Hollywood Reporter, and Tim Brooks, who has been an executive at a number of television networks, including Lifetime, USA, Sci-Fi, and NBC. He is currently a consultant and author of the book “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.”

Well, Tim Brooks, we have seen this on HBO and Showtime for some time, but what explains the recent rise of original programming on cable, that depends on advertising? What’s going on?

TIM BROOKS, former cable and broadcast executive: Well, original programming for cable serves a different purpose than it does for broadcast networks. It is a branding tool for networks, because most people choose maybe 10 or 15 networks out of the hundreds that are available as their networks they go to routinely.

And if you have some very strong, recognizable shows on those networks that bring viewers perhaps that hadn’t watched you before, like an FX or a Bravo or something like that, then they start to watch other things on the network. So, it is a very important tool to build a network brand.

JEFFREY BROWN: Matthew Belloni, what — expand on that. I mean, some of these shows get very small audiences, even if they get a lot of acclaim. Some are doing pretty well, but they’re not mass audiences. So, what — how do you see the economic model?

MATTHEW BELLONI, The Hollywood reporter: Well, they don’t need a mass audience to be successful on these networks. Like Tim was saying, you can sell advertising on these shows. But there’s multiple revenue streams for cable networks. They get paid a fee for — by cable networks — or cable systems when they carry the show — carry the networks. So, you get two revenue streams coming in, and you really just need a brand that people know. And they say, you know what? I really like the AMC channel. I like that channel. I want to have it on my cable system. And that’s really valuable for those networks.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Matthew, staying with you, so, last night, we see some of the cable show do very well, but some of the old broadcast shows doing well, “Modern Family,” “Glee,” “The Good Wife.” We mentioned a few of them.

What’s been the response to — from broadcast to the rise of cable?

MATTHEW BELLONI: Well, I think there’s been an awakening over the past few years by broadcast executives, where they say to themselves, you know, to compete in this universe, where the cable networks are doing edgier programming, with big stars, and getting a little bit more boundary-pushing in terms of the creative that they put on the air, the networks have really come back and said, you know, we can do a few of those shows ourselves.

If you look at “Modern Family” and “Glee,” those are shows that they are a little bit edgier. There’s a gay couple on “Modern Family.” And “Glee” is a show that pushes boundaries and has a lot of sort edgier fare in it. And I think the networks are saying, you know, we need to be able to compete here. And, creatively, they are in a certain extent.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tim Brooks, what would you add to that? Can they all survive and thrive, in a sense?

TIM BROOKS: Yes, they can on the programming. You have to remember that, in the ’70s and ’80s, it was a very closed system in the United States, three networks, and they all pretty much did the same thing, unlike Britain, that had a farm club sort of where they could develop new kinds of edgy programming. But now, with cable, the really edgy, boundary-pushing stuff starts on cable, perhaps on the pay networks, and migrates to broad-based cable networks, and eventually to the broadcast networks themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tim, staying with you, in the meantime, we’re about — even while all this going on, we are about to get a new round of very expensive programs from the premium cable networks like HBO. How can they afford to continue doing that?

TIM BROOKS: Well, the pay networks have a completely different model. They depend on subscriber revenue entirely. So, you have to pay $10, $12 a month to get HBO or to get Showtime. So, they really have to convince viewers that they have got something very special that you can’t get anywhere else. So, to them, a “Sopranos” or a “Sex and the City” or a very well-known, very acclaimed program is essential to their survival, because they don’t have the advertising to fall back on, the way the basic networks do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Matthew, what would you add to that?

MATTHEW BELLONI: Well, one thing to add in the pay cable context is that, you know, 10 years ago, while it might have been something special to have an original series on pay cable, that would be like an HBO’s “Sopranos,” that type of thing, nowadays, those shows exist on most of the free cable networks.

So, what you see is HBO and Showtime really upping the ante now. HBO is developing shows with Kate Winslet, with Diane Keaton, really A-list people. Their “Boardwalk Empire” pilot has been directed by Martin Scorsese. So, they are really upping the ante in terms of the talent that they are associating themselves with. And they are doing that in order to distinguish themselves in a universe that has become a lot more crowded.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and then — and then just take this all a step further, Matthew. You have everybody thinking about the rise in the number of people who still watch TV, but not necessarily on their TV set, and certainly not at a given time, right?

MATTHEW BELLONI: That’s true. I mean, there’s all sorts of services cropping up. The studios have Hulu, which is a very popular service. All the networks have, you know, ABC.com, NBC.com, all of their various Web properties.

You know, it’s actually pretty interesting, because I don’t think anyone has really figured out what the model is yet. The guy who created “Modern Family,” for instance, has been very critical of Hulu, because he doesn’t know, he says, how many people are actually watching on Hulu. And he certainly doesn’t know how much he should be paid, but he thinks he needs to be paid a little bit more.

JEFFREY BROWN: But as Hulu and others progress, does that affect or do we see it or might we see it affect what kind of shows get produced?

MATTHEW BELLONI: You know, I don’t know that that is happening yet, in terms of the networks specifically developing shows for those platforms. Right now, it seems that there is very much a, let’s take advantage of the content we’re creating across all platforms, whether TV, Hulu, streaming, et cetera. But I think, in the future, you will start to see a shift, as the consumers shift.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tim Brooks and Matthew Belloni, thanks for joining us.

MATTHEW BELLONI: Thank you.

TIM BROOKS: Glad to be here.