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A&E's Emmy Tack: Tapes and Serendipity

After the agents and publicists had scattered — and the totals were added up — A&E Network had wracked up an impressive 14 Emmy Award nominations: the most of any basic programmer and second only to Home Box Office in all of cable.

A&E executives attribute the bounty of nominations to a focus on quality, an attaché full of carefully selected tapes delivered directly to voting members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — and to serendipity.

After all, the network is competing in the drama categories, which some handicappers say are the most hotly contested these days.

"We're a 100-to-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby. We're not fooling ourselves," said senior vice president, programming Allen Sabinson. "But we've been invited to the dance and our shows will be talked about and displayed on a national awards show."

The nominations are a tribute to the network's brand positioning as a programming service for intelligent, upscale adults, aged 29 to 50, who take a discerning view of television, he added.

"We'd like to think everything we create … has validity and could get attention," Sabinson said. But in reality, it's far more effective to pick and choose the programs to offer Academy members for consideration.

That process begins with the director of drama, David Craig, who makes the first cut. Then Sabinson and Delia Fine, head of film and drama at the network, join the review and make a choice of potential nominees.

Those selected — and the slate of nominees from each production — are then forwarded to the directors and producers of the shows, for their concurrence.

This year, the network selected Nero Wolfe, 100 Centre Street, Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby, Horation Hornblower: The Mutiny, Live By Request, The Great Gatsby
and Longitude
as its Emmy hopefuls.

A&E took out very few ads to tout its potential nominees, a practice Sabinson said is too expensive.

"As important as [awards] are, we'd rather spend money on marketing the second season of Nero Wolfe
and 100 Centre Street,"
he said. "You can't buy them, and you can't succeed by trying to buy them."

A&E actually has a limited budget to fund campaigns for just two awards programs, the Emmys and the Golden Globe Awards.

The producers of the shows didn't advertise either, he said. The cable shows are made on a very cost-effective basis. Producers could all make more money elsewhere but come to cable for creative freedom. Given those factors, there's not a lot of money left over for ads, Sabinson said.

So the network and producers relied on a slick videotape portfolio of of A&E's best and brightest.

"You just send them out, then sit there, light candles and pray," said Sabinson.

As impressive as that might have been, the package was hit voters' homes along with similar packages from every other network. Sabinson, himself a voter, noted that the ballot was some 14 pages long.

"As pleased as we are, it's a little like winning the lottery," he said.

A&E's "lottery wins" include a nomination for outstanding miniseries for Hornblower,
which also was nominated for art direction, sound mixing, visual effects, costumes, hairdressing and makeup. The latter came without special campaigns to the craft guilds within the Academy, the executive said.

Peter Pan
is also a multiple honoree, with nominations for outstanding children's program, art direction, choreography and costumes. Biography, Target Stars on Ice
and 100 Centre Street
each received single nominations.

Given the high volume of shows up for consideration, how did A&E break through? Are its programs the anti-Survivor

"Oh, I don't want to say that," said Sabinson, laughing. "The programs, I think, speak for themselves. They're distinctive, no near-relative to anything out there, some of them based on classic novels."

A&E executives believe Emmy nominations are as valuable as actual wins. Given that, will the nominated shows be reprised before the winners are announced on Sept. 9?

"That's a damn good question," said Sabinson, who added he's more concerned about bringing back nominated shows packaged as an event for viewers. Ongoing series such as Nero Wolfe
and 100 Centre Street
are currently in rotation and have performed well. Sabinson said those series draw ratings 30 percent better than A&E's primetime average.

Asked to handicap Emmy night, Sabinson noted his money is on Biography,
nominated in the nonfiction series category. The Academy loves longevity, and the series has been on the air 15 years and has aired thousands of episodes.

"But I'm 30 years into this business," he said. "I've learned in my middle age not to engage in wishful thinking. This is not the presidential debate with two candidates and a whole lot of focus. There's a lot of serendipity in this whole process."