NBC's "Heroes" was this season's breakthrough hit. But can it break the Emmys' science-fiction hex?
The network's studio arm naturally wants a clutch of nominations for writer-producer Tim Kring's series about a group of ordinary people who discover they have superpowers. In a bid to secure key nominations, NBC is blanketing trade publications with ads for the show, sending out a DVD mailer to all 12,000 TV academy members and also offering a free iTunes download of the season finale, just as it did last year for the comedy "The Office."
Yet actually wangling a statuette in the best drama category may prove a lot tougher than saving the show's self-healing cheerleader (Hayden Panettiere). TV academy voters often snub the sci-fi and fantasy genres, which they appear to believe are less deserving of institutional recognition than more realistic fare.
Case in point: Fox's hit "The X-Files" was nominated four times as best drama but always lost out to shows such as "ER" and "Law & Order." Other Emmy also-rans include the hits "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (which lost out to "Picket Fences" in 1994), "Quantum Leap" (bested by "Northern Exposure" and "L.A. Law"), the original "Star Trek" (the 1968 Emmy instead went to "Mission: Impossible") and "The Twilight Zone" (losing out to "Hallmark Hall of Fame" in 1961). A number of other highly regarded sci-fi series, including Sci Fi Channel's critically acclaimed "Battlestar Galactica," have never even been nominated as best drama.
That may help explain why NBC executives are playing down "Heroes' " comic-book appeal, emphasizing instead its more traditional dramatic elements.
"I know intellectually [the series] lives in the sci-fi area," said Laura Lancaster, senior vice president at NBC Universal Television Studio, which makes "Heroes." "But for me, it goes back to the characters." Lancaster cited as an example the show's focus on the tense relationship between Nathan and Peter (Adrian Pasdar and Milo Ventimiglia), brothers who just happen to have extraordinary powers.
"It's beyond being a genre show," Lancaster said.
Maybe so. But industry prejudice runs fairly deep against anything that even smacks of the genre. Although science-fiction has proved its popularity with viewers over the years, executives tend to view the format as a purely escapist haven for geeks, filled with props like phasers and other goofy, futuristic paraphernalia. Therefore those shows are not as "serious" as other types of dramatic series.
Brad Adgate, senior vice president at New York ad firm Horizon Media, said that Emmy voters might be turned off by the "campiness" associated with some sci-fi efforts, as well as "the perception of an over-reliance on special effects instead of dialogue." Indeed, a look at Emmy drama winners in recent years (e.g., "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos") shows how voters tend to prize well-wrought scripts over special effects.
Still, he added, " 'Heroes' could get a nomination" because of its high ratings and its perceived "uniqueness" -- there's nothing else like it on the schedule.
That's what NBC is banking on. Mired in fourth place in the ratings, the network is doubling down on its new hit, adding a spinoff for a total of 30 "Heroes"-themed episodes next season. A DVD of the first season will land at the end of the summer. And an Emmy for best drama could go a long way in hooking new viewers.
"I absolutely feel like there's room for growth," Lancaster said of the "Heroes" audience.