Thursday, September 25, 2008

Emmy honors go to programs that have found a niche

So, did you watch the Emmy Awards on Sunday night? Me neither.

This year’s awards telecast was the lowest-rated Emmy ceremony in history, and not just because of its five lackluster hosts: Ryan Seacrest, Heidi Klum, Tom Bergeron, Howie Mandel and Jeff Probst. You’d probably find more talent in a police lineup.

In Hollywood, the Emmy Awards show’s low ratings didn’t come as a surprise.

“Industry insiders expected the awards to sink to a grim new watermark given that AMC’s low-rated ‘Mad Men’ was the most-nominated drama and NBC’s modestly rated ‘30 Rock’ was the most-honored comedy,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. “Some of the other shows — such as FX’s ‘Damages’ and HBO’s ‘John Adams’ — likewise drew niche audiences.”

But as they say in computing, this is a feature, not a bug.

If programs aimed at niche audiences are finally attaining the level of quality necessary to rack up Emmy nominations, then we’re finally seeing the promise of having upwards of 100 cable channels from which to choose. This is how it’s supposed to work.

Say the words “golden age,” and most people instinctively think of some period in the past. That’s because they remember the good parts and forget the bad. But as I’ve written before, the Golden Age of Television is now.

If you like comedy, there are at least two cable channels devoted just to comedy. If you like cartoons, there are at least three cartoon channels. How about sports? There are five flavors of ESPN alone, never mind the other sports channels. If classic movies are your thing, you have two channels from which to choose. If you like gritty dramas about morally ambiguous characters who swear a lot, FX is the place for you. And if you like sci-fi, there is a channel called Sci-Fi that has, on occasion, been known to show sci-fi programming.

There’s a Travel Channel, a Golf Channel, a History Channel and a Food Network.

And if you’re still nostalgic for the television of your childhood, there are at least two channels for that. Sometimes I, too, am a sucker for 40-year-old repeats of “Mission: Impossible” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Anyway, my point is that in this sea of channels, each one aimed at some niche audience, it’s inevitable that we’ll get a decent number of daring, well-made, risk-taking shows.

AMC is a channel that has struggled to find its place. It began as American Movie Classics and aired classic movies without commercial interruption. But it was pushed out of that market by two other channels with stronger movie libraries — The Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies.

It took several years, but AMC seems to have found its niche with a format of recent movies and original dramas. Two of those dramas won big at this year’s Emmy Awards. “Mad Men,” a period piece set at an ad agency in the 1960s, won the award for best drama series. Meanwhile, Bryan Cranston took home the Emmy for best lead actor in a drama series for “Breaking Bad,” in which he plays a terminally ill man who becomes a meth dealer to support his family. Neither is the sort of show that would have found a home back when there were only three broadcast networks and PBS.

The only thing that could ruin this Golden Age is the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering mandating that cable systems offer channels on an a la carte basis, meaning customers would pay only for the channels they want. The FCC claims that would lower cable bills by letting people drop channels they don’t want. Some in Congress have been agitating for a la carte cable TV, too, including presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

Whether your total cable bill would go down with a la carte is debatable and depends on how many channels you want. What is not debatable is that the per-channel price of cable TV would rise and some channels with niche audiences wouldn’t have enough viewers to survive.

That would be bad news for shows like “Mad Men,” and for our new era of diverse TV programming.

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