When the Emmy Awards are presented Sunday on the Fox Broadcasting Co., the show will celebrate 40 years of television comedy. But behind the scenes is a long-simmering Hollywood drama--a nasty network feud that has threatened the very future of the awards and now is coming to a head.
At the heart of the matter is the simple, indisputable fact that ever since the young Fox network, in a brilliantly aggressive move, outbid ABC, CBS and NBC for the Emmy show and began airing it in 1987, the awards broadcast has lost the vast majority of its national audience.
It has nothing to do with the quality of the show--just that Fox is smaller and has less audience penetration than the Big Three networks. When NBC broadcast the Emmys in 1986, the year before Fox took over the show, 36% of the TV audience tuned in. Last year, Fox's Emmy audience was down to 14%, a mere 12.3 million viewers watching as the TV industry honored its best work.
By contrast last year, the motion picture industry's Academy Awards telecast on ABC attracted 48% of TV viewers.
Increasing and vocal criticism of the Emmy telecast was heard in high TV quarters, pointedly charging that the awards were becoming a non-event. Brandon Tartikoff, then head of NBC Entertainment and currently chairman of Paramount Pictures, said after the dismal ratings delivered by the 1990 telecast that the show was "now worthless. The awards have been tremendously damaged."
It was not, however, a one-sided story. Fox, after all, was just trying to establish itself as a major player. The Big Three, which previously carried the Emmys on a rotating basis, could easily have matched Fox's bid--$3.5 million for TV rights from 1987-89 and nearly $9 million for a three-year renewal in 1990--instead of pouting resentfully at being outsmarted by feisty Fox.
And the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which supports itself by selling the rights to the Emmy show, was criticized for grabbing the higher bid, surely knowing that it would mean a smaller audience and thus, eventually, perhaps a loss of prestige for the awards.
Cut to the present.
As finishing touches are put on the 43rd annual Emmy broadcast, which will be hosted by Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld and Dennis Miller, industry concern over the awards has become so desperate that steps are finally being taken to get the show back on the Big Three networks.
In interviews with The Times, Barry Diller, chairman of Fox Inc., said he favors a four-network rotation and is willing to give up the 1992 Emmy telecast; Leo Chaloukian, president of the TV academy, reported that negotiations are being instigated with the Big Three, and Ted Harbert, vice president of prime time for ABC, acknowledged an internal memo at his network expressing interest in the Emmys and "outlining our goals--basically in price and the nature of the telecast."
There are obstacles, to be sure, from egos to harbored resentments to reports that the Big Three, feeling they now are in a position to dictate Emmy terms, already have tried to low-ball the TV academy with cut-rate offers to take the awards back. Several sources claim Diller is trying to unload the show because the ratings no longer are worth the price, a charge he sharply denies.
"Honestly, that's not the reason," said Diller, speaking of Fox's annual cost, which is about $3 million for the payment to the academy plus a reported $2 million for production of the show. "We will do a little better than break even with the show this year. And our (Fox's) owned stations will make $1 million."
Diller said he decided about 3 1/2 months ago to try to regain industry support for the awards by returning the show to a network rotation for the final two years of Fox's exclusive contract, starting with Sunday's broadcast. But the Big Three apparently were not willing. He said he told the networks:
"It (the show) is not costing us money. We'll prove it. If there's any shortfall between what you get from the Emmys and what you have to pay for it, we'll pay the difference."
According to one source, the thinking at the Big Three is to wait for another Emmy ratings flop, "then pick up the pieces cheaply. They made an offer to the academy that was maybe one-third (of the existing price for the awards broadcast). The academy is probably willing to take less now, but it was like rubbing people's noses in it."
Said Diller: "We felt the only way the show was going to get industry support was if it was on all the networks again. This has been a terrible year for free broadcast television. The (show) is the one thing that celebrates TV. When it was on the networks, it got very good ratings. Our audience profile is not wholly consistent with the Emmys. For the industry, the best thing for the Emmys is to be on a four-network rotation. I thought they'd love it."