David Zurawik

Emmy nominees stand tall, but NBC sells telecast short

It’s time for the Emmy Awards again, and I am excited and angry.

More angry than excited, so let’s take a bite out of that apple first.

I’m angry because the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards telecast airs almost a month earlier than usual — and on a Monday. It hasn’t aired on a weeknight since 1976.

The show achieved its highest rating since 2005 last year, but given the shift, the only question this year is how small the audience will be.

And that’s especially unfortunate, because the level of TV talent up for awards this year has never been higher in the three decades I have been covering the beat. Emmy Awards are the most powerful counterbalance to the money-money-money mentality that rules network TV, and this telecast has come to serve as a national celebration of quality over reality-TV and cheap-sitcom efficiency.

Further, while technology and lifestyle changes have upended all sorts of traditional media patterns, the Emmy telecast had become an important TV ritual — like watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” during the holidays or the Super Bowl in February to mark the end of the NFL season. Traditionally airing on the Sunday before the start of the networks’ new fall season in late September, the Emmy show was like a college bonfire rally before the first conference football game — a chance to see some of this year’s stars on stage and get psyched for the season ahead.

So why is the telecast, which will be hosted by Seth Meyers of NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” airing when many people are still thinking about summer?

The short answer: Because NBC, the network hosting the event this year, didn’t want to disrupt the audience for its regular-season schedule of “Sunday Night Football,” the highest-rated show on prime-time television and a production that defines cash cow when it comes to network programming.

That’s why it was moved ahead into the exhibition football season. As for airing on Monday instead of Sunday, that’s a two-part answer.

Part one: In the end, NBC decided it did not even want to disrupt audience expectations for an exhibition game — in this case, between the Arizona Cardinals and the Cincinnati Bengals.

Part two: Nor did the network want to split audience with the “MTV Music Video Awards,” which airs at 9 p.m. Sunday.

NBC has moved the telecast up before in deference to football fans — most recently in 2010, when Jimmy Fallon was host. But never on a Monday.

You might think the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which produces the event and hands out the awards, would step in to act on behalf of the audience, talent and TV industry itself.

But then, you would not understand how ratings and money have totally come to rule the medium.

Here’s the flaccid statement from the academy’s chief operating officer as to why the show is airing Monday.

“Each year it is the responsibility of the host network to schedule the Primetime Emmy Awards,” Academy President and COO Lucy Hood said. “With NBC, there is the added element of the NFL schedule, which typically pushes the date back into late August. We look forward to working with NBC.”

Translation: Don’t blame us; we’re just the producers and ultimate owners of the TV rights. It’s all NBC’s fault, but “we look forward to working” with the network.

There are two takeaways to the handling of the Emmy telecast by NBC, and I am not feeling great about either.

First is the extent to which sports games have come to dominate our popular culture. And second is how willing and even eager the networks are to minimize the importance of the Emmy telecast because it has become a celebration of cable and a stark reminder of how far the once-mighty NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox have declined.

Here’s a prediction: By the end of the first week of the new fall season, the two highest-rated shows on prime-time TV will be NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and the new CBS production of “Thursday Night Football.” And if you go beyond prime time, you will find the Sunday afternoon games filling out the list of top-five shows on all of television. And it will go that way week in and week out throughout the NFL season.

We are becoming a culture of games. And when you factor in all the action heroes adapted from comics that are set to hit the small screen this fall in series like Fox TV’s “Gotham,” what you have is a pop culture that feels decidedly geared to the sensibilities of adolescent boys and young men — the core audience for sports games and comic-book action heroes.

The Emmys, on the other hand, are one of the only forces in the industry that have nudged the powers that be toward adult drama and comedy.

And never has the quality been better — thanks to cable and Internet TV.

That’s the exciting part for me: looking at such categories as outstanding lead actor or actress in a drama series this year, and going back to savor their performances.

Of course, I am prejudiced in favor of Kevin Spacey, the driving force as Frank Underwood in the Baltimore-made “House of Cards.” You want Golden Age of Television? In the first hour of Season 2, Spacey took “House” clear back to the best of live TV drama during the 1950s in an episode-ending scene featuring him privately singing a ballad, “Pretty Polly,” to his partner in power politics, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), late at night.

I would love to see Spacey win for moments like that, but the competition is so steep — steeper than any Oscar competition I can think of lately. It features Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey of HBO’s “True Detective,” Jon Hamm of AMC’s “Mad Men,” Jeff Daniels of HBO’s “The Newsroom” and Bryan Cranston of AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”

I can eliminate Daniels and Hamm, but how do you decide among Spacey, Harrelson, McConaughey and Cranston?

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences should be showcasing this field of dream talent any way it can as evidence of the heights to which TV drama has ascended — not burying the telecast in which the award for best actor is made on a Monday night during the last week of summer.

The lineup is almost as impressive for best lead actress in a drama.

Again, I’ll do a full disclosure on my bias, this time in favor of Wright. But Claire Danes of “Homeland” (Showtime), Julianna Margulies of “The Good Wife” (CBS) and Kerry Washington of “Scandal” (ABC), would be just as worthy. I’m not overlooking Michelle Dockery of “Downton Abbey” (PBS) and Lizzy Caplan of “Masters of Sex” (Showtime); I’m just not as impressed by them.

Last year, I got a little ahead of things in my story advancing the Emmys by focusing almost exclusively on “House of Cards” and its potential for a big win that would signal the beginning of the end of cable as the kingdom of quality TV.

We could indeed still see a breakthrough for Internet TV Monday night at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles.

“House of Cards” has the potential again this year for a big night with the Spacey and Wright nominations, as well as ones for best drama, best direction and best writing. That’s five major categories.

And if there is any series that looks like an industry darling going into the telecast, it is the Netflix comedy “Orange Is the New Black.” It won three creative arts Emmys this month and is up for awards in five major comedy categories Monday night: best comedy, best actress (Taylor Schilling), best supporting actress (Kate Mulgrew), best directing (Jodie Foster) and best writing (Jenji Kohan and Liz Friedman).

Given that historic possibility and its own lack of major nominations, maybe NBC isn’t so crazy in burying the Emmy telecast in favor of an exhibition game. Football is about all the networks have left.


The 66th Primetime Emmy Awards air at 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 25, on WBAL-TV (Channel 11).