Debra Goldman’s Postscript: TV or not TV?

The Emmys have a new envelope that will be opened during the prime-time TV awards in September. When it is, one of five ads-two from Levi’s and one each from General Motors, Nike and HBO-will have the honor of being the first Outstanding Commercial of the Year.
But no one should start rehearsing their nationally televised acceptance speech just yet. First, it won’t be televised; the awards will be handed out at the not-ready-for-prime-time Creative Arts awards ceremony the Sunday before the “real” Emmy telecast. Second, it may not happen.
One-half of the two-headed beast that runs the Emmys wants to keep advertising from polluting the mission and prestige of TV’s second-highest honor (after ratings).
I won’t bore you with the Robert Rules of Order hairsplitting at the heart of the disagreement. Suffice it to say the current confrontation can be traced back to 1977, when the Los Angeles office of the New York-based National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences broke away, dropped National from its name and became a separate organization.
In the divorce, both sides received joint custody of the Emmy name, but Los Angeles got the prime-time Emmy show, while New York kept the awards for daytime programming and news. At issue is whether Los Angeles can now unilaterally and against New York’s wishes elevate prime-time spots to Emmy worthiness. The matter has gone to what the NATAS press release calls “a distinguished professional arbitrator” whose decision is expected shortly.
I suspect the fate of the commercial Emmy matters more to the feuding functionaries of NATAS and ATAS than it does to the ad business. It’s not as if ad awards are in short supply, what with Clios, Addys, Effies, Beldings and various grades of Lions and Pencils. Plus, it was the Los Angeles production community, rather than the ad agencies, that lobbied for an ad Emmy.
Still, the ad business has never met an award it didn’t like. Winning Outstanding Commercial of the Year would be a public relations plum. Here is an award designed to celebrate the big mass audience spots that remain the idol of the ad industry. At last, a prize given not for making a great ad, but for making great TV.
The notion that ads can be great TV is what bums out the New York half of the Emmys, not to mention the TV critics who would deny an ad the cultural dignity granted a sitcom. No one denies that it takes a lot of talent and skill to make chimps behave-or look like they are-in the HBO-nominated spot. But, argues Eric Mink in the New York Daily News, it’s “distinctly creepy” to equate the Levi’s “Doctors” or even the epic-length General Motors ad introducing the electric car, both contenders, with “the profound explorations of the human spirit seen in, say, episodes of NYPD Blue or Homicide.”
Perhaps Mink has confused profundity with sensational acts of life-threatening violence. Everyone loves Seinfeld, which is hardly profound. More telling, the equation between ads and programs is one that TV audiences make every day. In truth, there are two kinds of TV spectacles. The distinction isn’t between ads and programming. What counts is the difference between the stuff that gets attention and the stuff that doesn’t.
This is the best argument for reserving the Emmys for programming. Mink is right about one thing: It’s creepy that our culture is so flattened that Emmy-nominee Nike strikes a chord as deep, or deeper, than Steven Bochco.
Given that, is it fair to single out one aspect of TV over another? In viewers’ eyes, TV is TV is TV. Thus, the Emmys may not be the appropriate battlefield on which to wage a cultural war. They are awards for good television. And good TV is wherever you find it-commercials included.