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What the Emmys Meant

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He’s the deal—or no deal—the big networks have decided to take. / NBC

Once upon a time, Howie Mandel reminded us at the Emmys last night, he was on St. Elsewhere, a groundbreaking NBC medical drama. Today, he introduces babes with briefcases and relays messages from the banker on NBC’s Deal or No Deal.

Ladies and gentlemen, Howie Mandel is the broadcast TV industry.

Here’s what the Academy recognized yesterday: The major broadcast networks have gotten out of the ambitious TV-drama business. And since drama is the creatively dominant genre in TV right now, that means the major networks have gotten out of the ambitious-TV business, period.

Nearly every drama award worth winning—series, writing and acting—went to a cable series. Nor can ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox complain this time that the awards were all unfairly lavished on HBO, with its paying customers and zillion-dollar budgets. The awards were spread out among the likes of FX’s Damages and AMC’s[!] Mad Men and Breaking Bad, with supporting actress going to HBO’s In Treatment. Those FX and AMC shows may be on cable, but they compete in the same advertising-dollar market as the big networks, so no excuses.

I kid Howie Mandel, by the way, but I don’t blame reality shows for this situation. Mindless entertainment always will and always should be with us. The problem is that while cable takes chances and breaks ground with shows like Mad Men and Battlestar Galactica, broadcast TV is in a holding action, filling its hours with competent, just-good-enough-to-be-safe dramas like Eli Stone and Life. Its few truly ambitious dramas are legacies. If this fall season is any indication—and hoo boy, just wait for Knight Rider—the major networks are no longer interested even in making the next Lost, let alone the next Sopranos. (To be fair, some blame goes to the Emmys, for all but ignoring the few worthy network dramas like Friday Night Lights.)

The big networks are still in the comedy business, but just barely. Watching the awards last night, you would be excused for concluding that 30 Rock is the only worthwhile show on network TV. Throw in late-night comedy, and you had Comedy Central’s Daily Show and Colbert Report eating the lunch, or the midnight snack, of Letterman, Leno and O’Brien.

There used to be a populist argument against rewarding these critically praised cable darlings at the Emmys. Far more people watched network TV, the argument went, so why insult the people by saying that their tastes are wrong? Mad Men, Damages et al. do have relatively teeny audiences, it’s true. But the fact is that even this argument holds less and less water now, because even as the big networks get shut out at the awards, their commercial audiences are shrinking too.

In the aggregate, more people now watch cable than broadcast TV. And while it’s true that the big networks still have the biggest shows, that’s increasingly a relative term. Except for a couple megahits like American Idol, even “popular” network shows now draw audiences that, a decade or two ago, would be considered unimpressive, if not downright failures. Boston Legal would be dwarfed by ER in its heyday (as would today’s ER).

The big networks, in other words, have lost the prestige war and are steadily losing their audience anyway. But at least they have Howie Mandel.