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An 'Outstanding Achievement in Popular TV' Award at the Emmys? Not so Fast
August 16, 2018  | By Alex Strachan
 

And, breathe. When I first learned that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences — or “the Academy,” as they now prefer to call themselves — has planned a new Oscar category for “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film” I had two thoughts.

The first was, I wonder how much of this is being driven by ABC (the Oscars’ traditional broadcaster) and the steady decline in Oscar TV ratings over the years, a decline that has come to close to cratering in recent ceremonies? The problem, or so the theory goes, is that the contending films are boutique, art-house films in the main that no one has seen, or even wants to see.

Never mind that, several years back, the Academy expanded the number of eligible nominees in high-profile categories like Best Picture to 10 from the traditional five. (In this case, less might be more, as 10 is a more unwieldy number to wrap one’s brain around than five, and a limp superhero movie is unlikely to win too many votes for Best Picture, even if it does make scads of money at the box office and makes the expanded Best Picture shortlist.)

The second thought I had was if it’s good enough for the Oscars, could it be good enough for the Emmys? The truth is, though diehard TV fans may not care to admit it, the Emmys telecast has struggled in the ratings in recent years, too.

One significant difference there is that, unlike the Oscars, which are tied to a single network (ABC), the Emmys are rotated between the four major networks. (This year, Sept. 17, is NBC’s turn.)

Interestingly, the Oscar announcement provoked an almost overnight blowback from fans of the very movie an Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film would seem designed to support: namely Black Panther.

The implication is that Black Panther (below) can’t compete for Best Picture on its own merits, so a separate category has to be created (much like the thinking behind the recent addition of a separate category for Best Animated Film) where its makers can have their moment in the spotlight.

There’s the argument, too, that popular movies already have their reward — at the box office. They make a lot of money! The Oscars are supposed to be about the best of the best and, to a lesser extent, boosting the box office for a film that otherwise might vanish without a trace.

Then again, much of the blame for the present Oscar impasse between art and commerce can be laid squarely at the feet of the movie studios themselves. Not so long ago, box-office titans were also terrific movies. The Godfather is perhaps the best example, but there were others — many others. West Side Story, Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, The French Connection, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky and, more recently, Rain Man, Dances with Wolves, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Platoon and, lest we forget, Silence of the Lambs, the movie that arguably kicked off TV’s CSI-NCIS, Criminal Minds craze — every single one of the movies just mentioned won Best Picture and did gangbusters at the box office, too.

Including, I might add, a little number called Titanic.

It’s worth noting that, back in the bad-old-days when only five nominees could make the Best Picture shortlist, popcorn crunchers like Airport, The Towering Inferno, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Jaws all made the grade.

The art-versus-commerce argument is not new, of course, at these big award ceremonies.

There’s a famous story that Oscar producers begged Woody, a notorious no-show at the Oscars (he preferred to play his clarinet in a New York jazz club instead), to show up for the Oscars’ 50th-anniversary ceremony, in 1977.

His film Annie Hall was nominated for Best Picture, and there was talk — just talk, mind you, that it might, emphasis on “might” — actually win.

Oscar producers were frantic over the idea that a film might win Best Picture, only for its writer-director-producer-actor-star not to show up for what was supposed to be the highlight award of the evening. It would be as if Jaws had ended with Quint, Brody, Matt Hooper and Bruce the shark all circling each other warily in the drink, each not knowing what was to come next. Roll end credits.

Woody Allen finally relented. Okay, he told the Oscar producers, he would show up. Provided they could answer one question. Okay, the Oscar producers replied nervously: What was it?

Name one basis, Allen replied — just one — on which you can possibly compare Annie Hall with Star Wars.

End of discussion. Annie Hall won Best Picture. And Allen did not show up to accept the award. (Yes, Star Wars was nominated opposite Annie Hall for Best Picture; the other nominees that year were The Goodbye Girl, Julia, and The Turning Point.)

As for the Emmys, TV is going through a bellwether moment — a new platinum age when, with drama certainly, an artistic, creatively audacious series can also be wildly popular. The much-lauded, Emmy winning West Wing (below) performed respectably in the ratings, and Mad Men helped AMC become a genuine contender in a field until then dominated by the likes of NBC and HBO — but it was Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, back-to-back-to-back, that kicked it up to a whole other level, even as The Sopranos faded to black after singlehandedly boosting HBO’s profile to that a major player. The Big Four no longer looked so big: HBO was in town. And now, Netflix, and, incredibly — at least it would have seemed incredible, unthinkable even, just two years ago – Hulu and Amazon.

Ratings for the Emmy broadcast have slid, though, in part perhaps because the comedy winners haven’t kept pace with the dramas, where both popularity and award recognition are concerned. This year there will be a new Emmy winner for outstanding comedy series, as repeat past-winners Veep, 30 Rock and Modern Family are no longer in the mix — this year’s nominees are Curb Your Enthusiasm, Silicon Valley, Atlanta, GLOW and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Earlier this month, the Television Critics Association gave its award for outstanding achievement in comedy to NBC’s The Good Place, an outlier win for a network series in a field recently dominated by cable and streaming services.

An argument could be made — though I’m not about to make it — that the Emmys could set aside a new category for “Outstanding Achievement in Popular Comedy,” say, and The Big Bang Theory would finally get the Emmy accolade many of its fans feel it deserves.

Then again, no one at Big Bang Theory (top) is likely to be crying too hard over its lack of Emmy recognition. Big Bang Theory is about to return for its 12th season. Twelve! It’s still doing gangbusters in the ratings. Series stars Jim Parsons, Kaley Cuoco and Johnny Galecki can still get themselves invited to any Hollywood party, whether it’s televised or not. They can still appear at the Emmys, and gin up the ratings just by appearing on-camera. None of them are likely to have to take out a second mortgage any time soon, at least not that TVWW knows of. (It may be that audiences don’t watch award shows for the awards, anyway, but rather to see who shows up, what they’re wearing, and whether they say anything outrageous.)

Even if the traditional broadcast networks feel neglected by not winning any of the major awards at the Emmys, the TV academy is unlikely to add any new categories based on popularity any time soon. Popular TV programs are already recognized — in the weekly ratings.

Besides, as Variety’s International editor Henry Chu pointed out this past weekend on BBC’s Dateline London panel-discussion program, TV already has a popularity-based awards show — a popularity-based show that even populists might like.

It’s called The People’s Choice Awards.

And this year it airs on Nov. 11, almost eight weeks to the day after the Emmys. Popularity will get its due then.

 
 
 
 
 
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