Less than five months before the Primetime Emmys are scheduled to be handed out, telecast rights to the ceremony are still in limbo. That's causing a mounting problem for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which is dependent on closing a new TV deal and, if negotiations drag on much further, might face a production crunch in preparing for this year's show.
The academy has conducted business as usual during the eight months of negotiations for a new deal with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox to air the show on a revolving "wheel." Dates have been set, rules written, forms sent out, and networks, producers and publicists have been submitting shows to meet the April 29 submission deadline.
Yet there is still no broadcaster set to air the live telecast Sept. 18 from the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live. The previous eight-year contract ran out after the show in August, and negotiations have sputtered along ever since.
The academy and its chief negotiator, attorney Kenneth Ziffren, as well as the broadcasters, declined to comment. But the buzz in Hollywood is that the two sides remain at loggerheads over some very key issues, even before they get to the annual license fee, which was $7.5 million for domestic rights last year.
"The networks are saying 'Hey, before you even talk about the money, we have other problems to discuss,'" says a source close to the negotiations. The issues? "Cable shows being recognized far more than broadcast, the ratings situation and engaging the audience," this person says. "And we have a problem you (the academy) don't seem to understand. You cannot put that many categories on a live broadcast in the time available to make compelling television."
The networks' desire to shorten the show would almost certainly mean cutting categories, especially those for writing and directing. They may be important to the industry but don't mean much to the public, which is a big issue since the show has experienced ratings declines over the past decade.
To move the writers or directors off primetime and onto the Creative Arts Emmys, which air on cable, would violate the current contracts the academy has with the WGA and DGA.
Those issues are the reason the negotiations have stalled, at least for now, say sources, although everyone believes a deal will get done in the coming weeks.
The academy is said to be anxious to make a deal. But network bosses are busy preparing their fall schedules, their upcoming upfront presentations for advertisers and the annual screenings of new shows for international broadcasters. That will take them at least into the middle of next month to complete.
Every day that goes by, adds an insider, the academy is losing leverage. "The networks by and large are saying this isn't a priority right now," he adds. "They know every day that goes by the Academy is in a worse position because the onus of delivering what the academy wants is not on the networks' back, its on the academy's back."
Among other things, until the academy knows how much revenue it can count on from the show, it can't plan its own budget for future programs and expenditures. (The academy derives most of its revenue from the Emmys TV license fee and related fees and rights.)
Typically, the academy and the network broadcasting the show -- according to the past rotation, that would be Fox this year -- would usually already have lined up an executive producer, who in turn would be hiring his team around now. Insiders say the key players need to be in place by mid-May to get everything done in time.
Veteran awards show producer Ken Erlich, who produced five Primetime Emmy telecasts between 1980 and 2008, says the production is a two-step process. First you assemble your team, including an art director, lighting and set designers, director and writers. They work on everything from design for the venue to show themes to special animation to beginning to book presenters.
They also start the weeks of negotiations for a host, which Erlich says "has become more difficult" because many potential hosts are "risk adverse" and know that a high-profile show can be risky in terms of their career if things don't go well.
Step 2 starts when the nominations are announced (July 14 this year). At that point, the team springs into action to create a show that reflects the year in TV, pins down the talent, writes the script and sprints to get everything ready in time.
However, without a broadcast deal this year, there is no network officially set (though Fox apparently is doing some behind-the-scenes preparation), no executive producer hired and thus no professional staff working on the huge task of mounting the show.
That brings a collective shrug from the networks. They are being asked to pay a hefty license fee and put a lot of their resources into a show that is a one-time event.
On top of that, even if the network does a great job, and the stars align properly, the best they can hope for is second place. Every year since NBC began its Sunday Night Football franchise, the Emmys have ranked No. 2 for the night, except when NBC airs the show in late August prior to the football season. This year, a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons is scheduled Sept. 18. Of course, with labor unrest, there may not be a football season. Still, that's unlikely to comfort networks looking at a long-term Emmy commitment.
It is also nearly impossible for the academy to move the show to a cable service such as Turner, USA or TV Guide, as SAG has done. The networks have signaled that if it goes to cable, they likely won't enter many shows, make talent available, buy tickets or support the awards in other ways. They will also counterprogram even more aggressively.
Nine years ago, HBO offered $10 million for the Emmy telecast. Within the academy, sources say, the peer groups balked at a deal with HBO because it would not be as big as a show on broadcast and wouldn't meet the mandate to make the show for all TV viewers. "They would only do it as a last resort," said another industry insider.
That leverage did help get the networks to close the last deal at a higher license fee.
This time, HBO is not a bidder, and other cable networks have lots of their own original programming, so their need for a big event isn't that great.
So the networks will hold most of the cards when they finally come back to the table.