MASS appeal for Emmy-nominated comedies is hardly a laughing matter.
In an echo of recent years, the category is once again largely dominated by specialized, sophisticated comedies embraced by critics and showbiz insiders but not by a broad audience. Last year's comedy award winner, the ratings-challenged “30 Rock," will face off in this Emmys race against the even more selective appeal of HBO's “Entourage" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
The comedy category is rounded out by NBC's “The Office," somewhat better liked than the preceding trio, and by CBS' “Two and a Half Men," a rare example of a widely watched show receiving award attention.
" 'Two and a Half Men' has double the audience of 'The Office,' " said TV historian Tim Brooks. "Having an Emmy means something in the industry and on Madison Avenue, but TV is such a casual medium for viewers that an Emmy win is really not that influential when it comes to people deciding what they want to watch."
With its 17 nominations, "30 Rock" returns to the bittersweet position it inhabited last year -- notable acclaim but struggling in the ratings. Its Emmy victory did little to boost viewership, a troubling development that some fear mirrors the ultimate fate of "Arrested Development," Fox's celebrated Emmy winner from 2004 that was eventually yanked for low ratings.
But Ben Silverman, NBC's co-chairman of entertainment, said the Emmy glow on two of his network's comedies will certainly help each show expand its audience.
"Quality TV is the rule of the day," he said. "And the Emmys will continue to give '30 Rock' and 'The Office' momentum."
Awards will fuel DVD sales and aid in selling the shows into syndication down the road, he said. Stars from both have already jumped from the small screen to the big screen -- Tina Fey most recently with "Baby Mama" and Steve Carell with "Get Smart."
"We're the home of the TV movie star," said Silverman.
Meanwhile, Chuck , the creator of "Two and a Half Men," declined to speculate about his chances against the critical favorites.
"They're all wonderful shows, and it's great to be included in such an august group," he said. "I don't dwell on the disparity between popularity and critical acclaim. I've struggled with that in the past, and I realized I have no power over that stuff. We're just trying to make a show that is funny and that we can be proud of. The critics and Emmy nominations are completely out of our control."
The recent turn for the Emmys is relatively new. For much of the last two decades, the awards leaned heavily toward popular network comedies that were hits with both critics and viewers. "Frasier" was practically unbeatable through much of the 1990s, scoring five consecutive Emmys for outstanding comedy series and a total of 31 Emmy Awards. Other fan favorites that made it into the winner's circle included "Seinfeld," "Cheers" and "Everybody Loves Raymond."
Brooks contends the newer comedies differ from the traditional ones in more ways than just viewership.
Shows like "30 Rock" and "Arrested Development" require more concentration, and that can take a toll on attracting a wide audience.
"It's more of an acquired taste," he said.
Teri Weinberg, executive vice president of NBC Entertainment, said that as traditional sitcoms have became more problematic with audiences over the last several years, producers have been challenged to mine other approaches to comedy.
"The times are changing," she said. "And we're trying to find a way to make these comedies more accessible."
Weinberg, who was one of the main producers of "The Office," added, "The NBC comedies have great specificity. We are now opening up these shows and turning the dials to make them more seamless and make the audience feel a little more invited."
Whether the Emmys can help a show win viewers is still a longshot, said Brooks: "Some say an Oscar win for a movie can mean $100 million at the box office. But an Emmy win may result in only a tenth of a rating point."