The Guest of Honor

For HBO’s Emmy Awards party, I dressed in a black Banana Republic shirt, a black sports jacket with the frayed pocket strings meticulously snipped off, black slacks from off the rack at Mervyn’s and black Tony Lama boots—which I told people were in honor of Johnny Cash but which I actually wore because they’re the only shoes I have that look expensive in the dark.

Normally I shun Hollywood award-night parties, because good-looking people piss me off. But I accepted my friend Debra’s invitation to the the Pacific Design Center because I figured the HBO event would be less intimidating than most. Like a NATPE party, only with better food and without syndicators.

I was right about the food, especially the pumpkin lasagna. And the evening was worth it just for the visits to the top-of-the-line Andy Gump portable toilets. (You don’t find yourself in one of those every day, let me tell you.)

I didn’t see any syndicators, either. But I did meet a guy who used to work for William Morris and is now a producer. I talked with an associate publisher who was sitting with a producer. I almost spilled my Piper Heidsieck on a guy at the buffet table who said he was a producer. And I met David Steinberg, who I’m told is now a producer.

All of this production presence was only fitting, I guess, since HBO won eight Emmys, the most of any network. I mean, HBO always wins a lot of Emmys, sure. But the Sci-Fi Channel won an Emmy. TNT nabbed a trophy. Cable talents Tony Shalhoub and Jon Stewart got gold (or is it gold-plated?) statuettes. The largesse was spread pretty well among the wired ones.

In fact, for the first time ever at the Emmys, cable outscored the free networks in the award tally, 16-12. Which to me was a remarkable statement—more significant, even, than ratings or ad-revenue growth—on how far cable has come since it emerged from the primordial technological ooze 25 years ago.

These days, the broadcast networks mostly reach women 25-49 and forensic scientists nitpicking over the details of crime-solving procedures on Jerry Bruckheimer or Dick Wolf shows. Everybody else is watching Comedy Central, ESPN or Kim Cattrall (the only person at the HBO event—or in the world, for that matter—for whom I will make an exception to the good-looking-people-piss-me-off rule).

Advertisers would continue to add to their cable budgets no matter what the programming. They’re so flummoxed and panicked by clutter that they’d float spots on air currents if they could. Eyeballs are eyeballs. But the Emmys demonstrated a new reality: Viewers now clearly believe cable offers better television.

And not just because of that hoary “cable is edgier” explanation. Sci-Fi’s Taken could have aired, albeit in a shortened form, on any of the six broadcast networks with nary a tweak. Shalhoub’s show, Monk, has been repurposed for network TV. The stuff’s just gotten really, really good.

So, we should have less talk about ratings and cable buys and more about branded entertainment on cable. More product placement—the clever kind, not the “Oh, look, here’s this beer I just happen to be holding with the label facing the camera” ploys we see all too often. Those wicked-cool Absolut and TiVo integrations on Sex and the City this year, for example.

In media, we hear ad nauseam that clout isn’t as important as strategic thinking. Brawn is good, brains are better. We need to think the same of cable TV networks. They’re not just niches. They’re home to truly entertaining and memorable television. Cable is the new must-see TV.

So I’m keeping my Tony Lamas polished, because I expect to be attending a lot more celebratory Emmy parties thrown by cable networks.

And not just because of those toilets.