Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"The Shutout" (Not A Hockey Story)

I am not sure I know why.  In fact, I’m pretty certain I don’t.  Which means if you need a definitive answer, either go someplace where they know things or stick around and help me figure one out.

I am anecdotally aware that in both movies and in television, there are two different show businesses – one’s after big money, the other’s about artistic quality – and that the most prestigious awards go to the participants in the second category, hence, the recent Oscars winners:  Birdman, Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel and not… anything that opened in the summer.  Or looked like it could have.

A similar situation applies in television. 

Although not entirely, which is where I am going with this, but not right away.

When I began writing for television, there were only three networks.  (And we warmed ourselves around a really big fire.  Not really.  Though it is beginning to feel that way.)  The awards competition was therefore intermural – “Only commercial networks need apply.”  Or could apply because there wasn’t anything else.

Even then, however, there was a distinction between what were perceived to be the quality shows that won the awards – The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi – and their network contemporaries – My Favorite Martian, Green Acres and Laverne and Shirley. 

The gap in “Respect Status” was literally palpable.  Both Taxi and Laverne and Shirley were filmed on the Paramount Studios lot.  But entering Taxi’s offices was like stepping into an Ivy League college.  By contrast, the Laverne and Shirley offices projected the aura of where incorrigible High School kids are sent for detention.  (I know this sounds hubristic but the Laverne and Shirley people themselves felt that distinction, even though Laverne and Shirley consistently trounced Taxi in the ratings.  You passed the Taxi offices with hushed tones.  “Shhh.  They’re doing smart stuff up there.”  You went by the Laverne and Shirley offices, it's like, "Look!  The actors are hitting the writers with the scripts!")   

Cable changed everything.  Commercial television, as its economic business model required it to be, was about attracting the “mass audience.” Cable, which cost money to watch it, focused on providing viewers with programming they could not see on the networks, because the networks could not risk offending anyone, the result being that their shows’ content was (comparatively) bland, and the clothing remained on the actors.

With cable – at first with Premium Cable but later non-subscription cable outlets as well – there came a new dichotomy:

Cable decimated the networks when the prestigious awards came around.

With one exception.

And herein lies the question I am certain I cannot satisfactorily answer:

I looked it up just to be sure.  I had a hunch but no confirming evidence.  It turns out that my hunch was correct.

No commercial network has won a “Best Dramatic Series” Emmy award since 2007.
(The winners since then being The Sopranos (HB0), Mad Men (AMC) – four times in a row – Homeland (Showtime) and Breaking Bad (AMC).

Not a surprise there.   But this is a surprise.  Or at least a conundrum.

No cable network has ever won a “Best Comedy Series” Emmy.


Not The Larry Sanders Show.  Not Sex In The City.  Not Flight of the Conchords.  Not  Entourage.  Not Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Not Louie.  Not Veep.  And not Episodes.

And I am wondering in this venue…

How come?

Superior quality is acknowledged in dramas.  In comedy, although Modern Family – a recent five consecutive Emmy awardee – is a skillfully executed half-hour comedy, does it really show the (comparative) imagination and risk-taking of the above cable examples (and others), or of the cable dramas that consistently win Emmys, whereas cable comedies, although nominated, do not?

And therein lies the question:

Why are cable dramas victorious at the Emmys while cable comedies are consistently shut out?

Why are television’s Emmy voters, so open to rewarding cable’s pushing the envelope in drama, opposed to acknowledging paralleling adventuresomeness in comedy?

Here’s what the conventional wisdom says:

The Emmy Awards are selected by volunteer voters, and those volunteer voters are older.  (The older academy members, having been cast aside by a cold and uncaring business, allowing them more time to wade through the submissions, and later, the nominated finalists.) 

Older people are traditionally more conservative.  Though, apparently – and this is the perplexing part – judging by their voting, they are more conservative about comedy than they are about drama.

This dichotomy seems to suggest that comedy is more culturo-sensitive than drama.  It appears to be easier to turn off older volunteer Emmy voters with an offending (as it was called in the Blossom theme song) opinionations than with sexual themes and actions or excessive – to me at least – violence. 

Here’s one I’m throwing in because I’m desperate.

Older volunteer Emmy voters, having spent their careers toiling in pre-cable network television, vote for network comedies out of loyalty.  (“Thank you for letting us go.  Enjoy your well-deserved award.”)

I told you that was a “reach.”

You know what?  I’m going to stop pretending I have a clue about this when I don’t.   I believe you will respect me more because of it.  

You tell me.

Why do Emmy voters regularly award Emmys to cable dramatic series but never to cable comedies?

I await your illumination.


Frank said...

Maybe Modern Family gives all those older volunteers gift baskets with a joint of L.A.Confidential thrown in for their viewing pleasure.

Cassie said...

That is a fascinating bit of information. I have no idea and no guess as to why the cable shows don't win the comedy awards. I don't watch award shows any more so I don't even know what cable shows get nominated. I do enjoy cable comedies such as Shameless and Nurse Jackie; in the past, The Big C and Weeds in their early seasons. I don't know that those shows are even categorized as comedies. But I'm just rambling. I have no idea!