March/April 2012
Volume 32 No. 2

March/April 2012
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My Two Cents

There’s no question about it: HBO has to be commended for its innovative programming, and the 25 primetime Emmy Awards it has won since 1993 are a testament to that. However, weighing HBO against a broadcast TV network for such awards is not only unfair, it’s unreasonable. To me, those Emmy wins are like comparing apples to oranges.

HBO, short for Home Box Office, is a premium cable TV network owned by Time Warner that was born in the U.S. in 1972 and since 1993, has produced original programming. Currently, it serves 151 countries worldwide. In the U.S. it reaches 28.2 million subscribers, making it the second largest premium network in the U.S., after Starz’s Encore, which has 32.8 million subs.
Besides the fact that HBO’s big-budget productions compete against broadcast movies and average-budget series, on-air TV content is restricted, while HBO can go to town with profanity, violence, nudity and sex.

Now, you tell me if a match can be called equal when one contestant is fighting with a shorter sword and one hand tied behind his back.

We have two heavyweights (pay-TV and broadcast), but one is fighting with just one glove. In that match, I’m sure there is no satisfaction on the part of pay-TV either.

HBO and other similar pay-TV and subscription services have no obligations to advertisers and only a few to the U.S. regulatory agency, the FCC. They respond only to the whims of consumers and have the money to produce quality and innovative programming virtually without any creative limitations.

On the other hand, broadcast TV has a long list of programming rules, regulations, restrictions and guidelines. Network television is vulnerable because in order to cover the country, it makes use of affiliate (local) TV stations, which are ultimately answerable to the FCC, and are the ones that could risk losing their broadcast licenses. Just imagine, the FCC even objects if TV stations broadcast programs “inciting lawless actions.”

Under the same rules, pay-TV services would, if not disappear, certainly suffer greatly. Plus, the FCC “urges” viewers to file complaints if they think a program is offensive. Keep in mind that conservative Americans, though they do not object to violence, are offended by the slightest sign of cleavage.

If the Oscars differentiate between U.S. movies and foreign movies, there should be a similar awards logic between pay-TV and broadcast content. One could argue that there are also restrictions on movies, but those do not affect the outlet (i.e., the movie theater) but only the viewers. Plus, such restrictions do not hinder creativity — to the contrary, at times they enhance it.

Academia, too, is noticing the disparity. Professor Robert Thompson of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, has been quoted as saying: “Without a doubt, the business model of network television is suffering from competition with other channels that operate with fewer content restrictions.” It was also noted that hit shows such as The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Weeds, Sex and the City, Californication and Deadwood in the U.S. could only have been created for cable. Even China is aware that “Content Restrictions Quash Creativity,” according to the China Digital Times, which added that “the reason there are too many similar shows [on broadcast TV] is because creativity has been restricted.”

The point of this “My2¢” is not to rescind regulations — far from it — but to put broadcast TV on a different playing field than cable/satellite/online TV, at least when awards are bestowed.
For its part, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS), which runs the Emmys, stated: “When cable came into eligibility, plausible arguments were made that it had more creative freedom, bigger budgets and more production time than broadcast. But they couldn’t trump the counter arguments that the Emmys reward creative excellence regardless of broadcast or cable platforms.

“When the [ATAS] Board of Governors approved eligibility for cable programs and individual achievements (1988), it was on the condition that they would be fully integrated into the competition. The Board did not want to set up separate categories for cable (á la the NCTA’s Cable Ace Awards).

“The Board did not want to have separate award tracks within the same genres, e.g., a drama series category for broadcast and a drama series category for cable. To do so would be to split and diminish the prestige and importance of the drama series category. It would effectively tier the awards into two lesser sub-categories rather than keep them consolidated in one award.”
Dom Serafini

Dom Serafini