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HBO Bids for Emmy Telecast

November 12, 2002|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

The Emmy Awards may not be broadcast on network television for the first time in its 54-year history because cable channel Home Box Office has made a lucrative bid to televise the ceremony.

Officials at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences said Monday that a cable network, which industry sources identified as HBO, tentatively has agreed to pay the nonprofit group $50 million over five years to exclusively carry the TV industry's most prestigious awards show, beginning next year.

The announcement left network TV executives flabbergasted. The Emmy telecasts have rotated among ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox under an agreement that paid the academy $3 million annually. At $10 million a year, HBO would roughly triple the license fee over the 10% raise the networks had discussed.

Most of the networks were reluctant to comment, but a CBS spokesman said that if the proposed deal is consummated, the network "will no longer participate in the Emmys in any way, shape or form and withdraw all support" from the academy.

Although HBO is available only in about a third of U.S. homes, it probably would unscramble its signal, giving all cable subscribers and satellite dish owners access to the commercial-free Emmy telecast.

But the Emmys still would not be available to nearly 20% of U.S. homes, or more than 40 million U.S. residents. Sources say there has been talk of repeating the ceremony the following week on the WB network -- which, like HBO, is a unit of AOL Time Warner Inc. (The WB also is part-owned by Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times.)

Any agreement must be approved by the academy's board of governors, which is scheduled to meet Wednesday night. However, the academy does not have to finalize a deal at that meeting, and sources say the group has invited network representatives to attend, leaving the door open for a competing offer.

Network sources were not sure they would come up with an alternate proposal with, as one put it, "a gun to our heads." Academy officials said they would present all overtures to the board, whose members represent 27 industry peer groups, from animation to title design.

The academy has long argued that the Emmys are undervalued relative to other awards. For example, the Grammys, which honor the music industry, attract a comparable audience overall but earn an estimated $25-million annual fee from CBS.

Academy officials say the TV awards generate about $20 million in profit each year for the host network and based their asking price on splitting that amount. Entertainment attorney Ken Ziffren has spearheaded the negotiations on behalf of the academy.

The broadcast networks, meanwhile, have resisted increasing their fee, contending that the Emmys are a chance for the industry to honor itself and therefore are different from other award shows. Moreover, the TV academy is vulnerable to punitive action by the networks, which in the past has included withholding Emmy nominees, declining to purchase tickets and attend the event, and threatening to establish a rival TV awards show.

The last time the academy forged an exclusive Emmy deal was in 1993, signing a four-year pact with ABC. A year later, the parties tore up that agreement and the academy entered into a rotating arrangement among the four major networks, succumbing to threats of a boycott and having advertising withdrawn from its official publication, Emmy magazine.

An agreement also would be risky for HBO, which has made winning awards a key component of its marketing strategy, generally running neck-and-neck with NBC in Emmy nominations and victories the last several years.

Industry sources said the proposed agreement could make it appear as if HBO is, in essence, buying awards, inasmuch as the pay service essentially would be underwriting the TV academy. In addition, fewer people probably would see the telecast, potentially reducing its effectiveness as a promotional tool.

"If I were at HBO, I would rather be on NBC, with 20 million viewers, having people thank HBO," said one academy insider.

An HBO spokeswoman would say only that it is "inappropriate for us to comment on the business of the TV academy."

In 1987, News Corp.'s then-fledging Fox network nearly tripled the license fee to land the Emmys exclusively. Ratings for the show plummeted, however, as the major networks more aggressively offered counterprogramming against the telecast -- another side effect that could result from a cable deal.

Richard Frank, who headed the TV academy at the time, recalled years ago that the networks "all went after it with a vengeance."

Academy officials say the increased fee is necessary to finance scholarship programs and other activities, without requiring it to engage in extensive corporate fund-raising.

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