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At Emmys, some laugh to keep from crying (and some just cry)

Gallows humor rules. Host Neil Patrick Harris dances as fast as he can, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus jokes that it's 'the last official year of network television broadcasting.'

September 21, 2009|Scott Collins

Even before it was over, Sunday's Emmy Awards on CBS won raves for sprightly pacing, (mostly) classy jokes and emcee Neil Patrick Harris. There were predictable winners -- NBC's "30 Rock" won for the third time as best comedy, AMC's "Mad Men" won again for best drama -- but enough upsets to keep things interesting, including a big nod for Showtime's little-seen comedy "United States of Tara."

But there was also a different kind of tension. Harris cheerfully greeted viewers with a Broadway-esque tune that urged them not to channel-surf away from the show or watch it later on DVR. "Don't jump online, 'cause this fine mug of mine needs a huge high-def screen," sang the star of CBS' "How I Met Your Mother."

Indeed, beneath all the bouquets, the industry's top professionals could scarcely contain their anxiety about the future.

Sunday's show proves that the once-powerful network television business has finally reached a point where it can't put aside fretting about its systemic problems, even on a supposedly celebratory night dedicated to bestowing laurels and gratitude.

With executives mired in concerns about ever-tumbling ratings, mass viewer defections to cable programs and eroding ad revenue, winners couldn't resist poking fun at the industry's plight.

Tina Fey pointedly thanked her NBC bosses for sticking with her comedy, "30 Rock," "even though we are so much more expensive than a talk show" -- a not-so-subtle reference to NBC's "The Jay Leno Show," a relatively low-cost program that now swallows up five hours a week of prime time formerly occupied by expensive scripted series.

Kristin Chenoweth, who won for her supporting work on ABC's "Pushing Daisies," thanked the TV academy for honoring her canceled show even though it's no longer on the air.

"I'm unemployed now," she said through tears, "so I'd like to be on 'Mad Men.' "

Julia Louis-Dreyfus said it perhaps most succinctly. The former "Seinfeld" star earned big laughs from the crowd joking that this is "the last official year of network television broadcasting."

It's not hard to see where all the gallows humor is coming from. Network TV just followed up its least-watched season ever with its most punishing summer ever.

And there's no relief in sight: With premieres that began to trickle out last week in advance of tonight's official fall launch, ratings so far have been lackluster at best.

Even NBC's Leno show had by the end of the week shed 58% of the 18.4 million viewers it gathered for last Monday's premiere.

That means the TV business is more dependent than ever on cable programming to fill in the gaps left by networks. Many of this year's biggest Emmy wins were for cable programs with relatively tiny fan bases. The best example was "United States of Tara," which averaged fewer than 3 million viewers a week during its first season on Showtime. Star Toni Collette's surprise victory -- which should help raise the show's profile -- brushed back broadcast competitors such as Fey and Louis-Dreyfus, of CBS' "The New Adventures of Old Christine."

Bryan Cranston, who rose to prominence as the father on Fox's smash family comedy "Malcolm in the Middle," won his second consecutive best lead actor prize for the AMC drama "Breaking Bad." Glenn Close achieved the same feat on the lead actress side with FX's "Damages."

That left Alec Baldwin of "30 Rock" as the only broadcast representative in the four major acting categories. The workplace comedy has struggled to build ratings through three seasons.

Indeed, professionals have become so accustomed to the growing significance of other outlets that they are adjusting their business priorities accordingly. TV writers struck for three months in 2007-08 after bitter disagreements with studio bosses over pay for new media and other issues.

"We actors are so thrilled with the amazing success of cable television and the advent of new media, and can barely wait to renegotiate," said Ken Howard, who won as a supporting actor on HBO's movie "Grey Gardens" and is also a Screen Actors Guild presidential candidate.

Of course, broadcast favorites such as "The Office" and "Lost" got a bit of Emmy love too.

But Harris wasn't being completely tongue-in-cheek when he bid viewers goodbye.

"May we see you again," he said, "on broadcast television next year."


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