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Police procedurals rack up ratings but few Emmy nods

'NCIS,' 'The Mentalist,' 'Bones' and others tend to be plot-driven and formulaic rather than flashy.

June 10, 2011|By Christy Grosz, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel in "Bones."
David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel in "Bones." (Fox )

The Emmys might occasionally be dismissed as a simple popularity contest, but for top-rated procedurals, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, while such series as "NCIS," "The Mentalist" and "Criminal Minds" consistently attract more than 14 million viewers per week — more than holding their own against juggernauts "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" — these audience favorites rarely earn Emmy nominations.

The obvious question is: If a crime-based drama is good enough to attract and retain strong viewership, isn't it worthy of a few statuettes? Well, yes and no, say some show runners.

In a lot of ways, Emmy voters are attracted to what's new and flashy on TV, which doesn't leave much room for shows that adhere to a familiar formula and that build their audience over time.

"We tend to react to things that are different and things that are outside the box. And we reward those things," says "Bones" creator Hart Hanson. But, he says, making a series engaging from week to week is no less difficult when working within the box, so to speak.

"The shows that fit the usual TV tropes, which are very difficult to do, look easier. The toughest thing to do is get a large audience, but that's not what you get awarded for, because you're not pushing envelopes," he explains.

More important, even though awards represent a big confidence boost for cast and crew, they don't have the same payoff for the network when the show is already earning respectable ratings. "When you're a show that's performing really well for a network, they are less incentivized to put together an [Emmy] ad campaign," says "Castle" writer and executive producer Andrew Marlowe. "However, if you're a show that's reaching a limited audience — like every cable show out there just by its nature — the best way that you can attract new viewers is to have a strong Emmy campaign and have the show be nominated."

A notable example of this phenomenon is "Mad Men," which has earned best drama Emmys three years in a row yet averages fewer than 2 million viewers. But Marlowe says the reason voters keep coming back to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is because of the type of conflict the characters deal with.

"With procedurals, you have a built-in framework of solving a case, so the majority of obstacles are external obstacles for our characters. I think Emmy voters are looking for shows where characters are wrestling with internal obstacles," Marlowe says.

For "Law & Order: SVU," high-profile guest stars have earned several Emmy nominations over the years, which outgoing show runner Neal Baer attributes directly to writing parts rife with internal conflict.

"We try to write deep emotional roles for them, as opposed to strictly procedural, which may not yield the same kind of role where someone can really get their chops into it," Baer says, adding that making Mariska Hargitay's role a little more personal earned her a well-deserved statuette in 2006.

In general, cable allows for more deviation from the traditional formula, which, in turn, allows more time for character development.

"When you have a murder a week, there's so much plot that needs to be served," says "The Killing's" writer and executive producer Veena Sud, who spent four years on "Cold Case." "In a show that takes more time to look at a murder, you can fill that real estate with other things, like character, like internal conflict or tangential stories."

Sud also points to the broadcast networks' need to appeal to a wide audience as being somewhat limiting.

"It's night and day being on cable versus being on broadcast," she says. "In cable, you're just allowed to be edgier and you're allowed to be braver and not have to wrap things up and make everyone smile at the end of every episode, which is a relief."

"Bones'" Hanson puts it even more bluntly.

"A show that only has to do 13 episodes a year and has a nice, big, fat budget, they better win the Emmy," he says with a laugh. "We're more like a punk band than we are like a jazz band. We just have to keep going and try and keep everybody dancing, even though we miss some of the chords."

calendar@latimes.com

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