For years, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has waged an internal battle to determine the direction of the Emmy Awards: Are they a showcase to honor excellence -- that is, the best in television -- or an annual TV special that will generate a big license fee and fund ambitious academy-sponsored activities?
The decision to "time-shift" eight of the 28 awards handed out on Emmy night -- prerecording those award presentations in order to squeeze an extra 15 minutes out of the broadcast and pay homage to more popular (if potentially less excellent) programs -- makes clear which side won.
To be fair, the academy, CBS and producer Don Mischer were seeking a compromise, and on paper it's a fairly artful solution. But like many compromises, while it was enough to pass muster with the organization's board, it's unlikely to please everyone.
Unlike the Oscars, the TV academy doesn't control the production of its own show. They have licensed the rights to the four major networks, who share the awards on a rotating basis and, frankly, have largely fallen out of Emmy contention for many of the highest-profile awards.
Said broadcast networks want to put on a show that will generate high ratings and make them some money. And they're convinced (self-servingly, but not necessarily inaccurately) that recognizing programs like AMC's "Mad Men," HBO's "John Adams" or Showtime's "Dexter" evokes a big "Huh?" response among too much of the audience to fulfill that objective.
The Oscars -- faced with a similar dilemma, as little-seen indie films piled up award bids -- announced that they would expand the best-picture roster to 10 nominees. The Emmys came pretty close to that, upping the best drama and comedy list, with seven contenders in each category based on the latest voting. But that still wasn't enough.
As the host network, CBS was all for cutting back on time allotted to categories that don't feature recognizable stars. After all, the Tonys and Grammys both performed better ratings-wise this year, and each of those academy-backed exercises have reduced the number of on-air award presentations. Why should the Emmys be immune?
Besides, the networks are tired of watching HBO talent keep parading up to the podium. Last year's Emmy ratings were a disappointment. What better excuse to give the heave-ho to some TV movie categories (where HBO -- yet again -- nabbed the lion's share of nods), outstanding miniseries, and maybe even writing for a drama, where "Mad Men" garnered four of the five nominations. (For the record, "Lost" rounded out the category.)
But the academy also knows that this policy shift will not sit well with prominent members of the TV community, which is why the organization has at best been coy about its plans since a preliminary vote to amend the awards in February.
Based on reaction to Thursday's announcement, the roster of aggrieved parties begins with writer-producers, who are television's top dogs. The Writers Guild of America West made clear that it's not happy about the move, saying, "Last year's Emmys suffered a tremendous decline in quality and ratings because of a lack of scripted material. That the Academy would then decide to devalue the primary and seminal role that writing plays in television is ridiculous and self-defeating."
Asked how writers would feel about the news, one showrunner -- alluding to some of the sensitivity that surfaced during last year's writers strike -- said wryly, "As you may have noticed, writers are a little touchy on this respect issue."
Altering the Emmy format might help improve ratings, which would make the networks happy -- and assist the academy in negotiating a more lucrative license fee after its current contract expires in 2010. But it is sure to alienate those who see the Emmys as a rare oasis devoted to lauding excellence, amid a TV landscape where commercial considerations can often be downright cruel to quality programming.
In this decades-old struggle, something eventually had to give -- a little like the psychological war between Norman Bates and his mother. Just don't expect the combatants on the short end of this existential struggle to sit there, quietly, like they wouldn't hurt a fly.