Awards Shows Help Push Nets, Cable

Two decades ago, there were only three shows of stature in which the entertainment industry honored its own: the staid, broadcast-televised Oscars, Emmys and Grammys.

And though those ceremonies are still revered by the film, TV and music industries, respectively, a new, more irreverent breed of awards show has sprung up alongside them.

In the 21st century, cable network-branded awards shows-aimed at sports fans, music aficionados and even kids-have reached the same "must-see" status as their old-guard counterparts. They've also helped increased the stature of cable networks like MTV: Music Television, ESPN and Nickelodeon in terms of ratings and advertising revenue.

Such shows have also empowered viewers by giving them an opportunity to choose the winners, and in some cases, the categories themselves.

But whether the focus is music, sports or cable's programming diversity, executives say the industry's various awards shows have heightened cable's status within the entertainment industry.


Cable-network based awards shows were initially spawned from the industry's desire to more effectively serve its targeted niche audiences, executives said. By the time ESPN launched its annual
ESPY Awards

in 1993, the network had already established itself as a force in sports television.

The creation of the

-which recognizes the year's top performances in sports-provided a platform for ESPN to cement its position as a leader in the sports entertainment business,

executive director Maureen Murray Quinn said. Though many professional and collegiate sports groups hand out awards for excellence, she said, the

are the only venue in which all performances can be judged and recognized side by side.


are generally perceived to be

awards show in sports," Quinn said.

"We hope the sports community sees the

in the same light as the entertainment industry does the Oscars."

Other networks have used awards shows to establish a closer relationship with viewers. Kids-targeted Nickelodeon sought effective ways to target its core audience when it launched the
Kids' Choice Awards

in 1987.

As the only awards show that reflects the attitudes and whims of today's children, the
Kids' Choice Awards

provided Nickelodeon with tremendous brand awareness and recognition not only among its core 5- to 12-year-old target audience, but also among parents and other adults.

"We think it's a brand-builder for us and it allows us to give kids something in the awards-show arena, when everyone else targets awards shows to adults," Nickelodeon/Nick At Nite executive vice president and general manager Cyma Zarghami said.

MTV: Music Television attempted to establish itself and the music-video format as a viable entertainment option when it debuted the
MTV Video Music Awards

in 1984.

The awards show initially served as a more "irreverent" alternative to the highbrow and structured
Grammy Awards
. However, it soon became a cultural phenomenon for a young audience whose music was often ignored by the more-established venue.

"We created an atmosphere on MTV and cable where it was completely unpredictable at a time when awards shows had become relatively predictable," MTV: Music Television and MTV2 president Van Toffler said. "At the MTV Awards, you didn't have to wear a black tie. It became a surprising, charged atmosphere that was contrary to what was happening on network television at the time."

Award shows like the
s and the

are influential and popular enough to appear on the broadcast networks, but network executives said their stature bodes well for cable's image both among viewers and entertainers.

According to the National Cable Television Association, total cable viewership has quietly passed total broadcast network viewership over the past year. Much of that momentum is due to marquee programming like awards shows.

"The award shows are a great way to highlight the best of cable programming," NCTA president and CEO Robert Sachs said.

The Sopranos

on HBO and other flagship shows on cable, [award shows] have helped to make the television viewing universe aware that there are big events on cable," added Toffler. "It's must-see TV, it creates a sense of urgency for viewers and it just so happens to be on cable television."


To further its appeal to core viewers, a number of cable's awards ceremonies are interactive, allowing viewers to choose many of the winners in a number of categories. More than 15 million kids voted for their favorite actors and actresses for Nick's 2000
Kids' Choice Awards
, Zarghami said.

The interactive nature of the show is very popular among kids who want their opinions to be heard. And those views often differ from those of their parents, she said.

"Adam Sandler may not win an Academy Award for
Big Daddy
, but he would win a kids' award, because the kids like him," Zarghami said. "It epitomizes our position in the kids' universe in terms of kids empowerment."

While the MTV
Video Music Awards

provides several categories in which viewers can vote, the network's
MTV Movie Awards

is completely interactive. Viewers can choose winners in a number of non-Oscar categories, such as best on-screen kiss.

Toffler said the event has developed a following and interest in Hollywood because it reflects the likes and dislikes of consumers aged 12 to 34-the largest movie-going group.

"It's been an alternative take on the Oscars," Toffler said. "Clearly the demographic has their favorite stars and while the Oscars may ignore a Julia Roberts or Jim Carrey or Mike Myers, we will acknowledge them in our show and let the audience truly pick who wins and participate, which is something the Oscars don't do."

VH1, MTV's sister service, takes the notion of interactivity one step further with the
My VH1 Music Awards
. The music video-oriented show, which debuted Nov. 30, allows viewers to not only choose the winners in 21 different music categories, but also the categories themselves.

More than one million fans can participate in the show's voting process via VH1's internet site [
], said executive vice president of programming and products Jeff Gaspin. While the show will offer some traditional categories such as Song, Group, Man and Woman of the year, some of the categories are very unique.

You'll never see categories such as "Must Have Album," "Your Song Kicked Ass, but Was Played Too Damn Much" and "SeXXXiest Video" at the
American Music Awards
, but VH1 viewers suggested those and 21 other music categories.

"We're not looking to compete with the
American Music Awards
, but we wanted to develop something unique that would carry the VH1 brand," Gaspin said. "We decided the best way to differentiate ourselves from other music-awards shows was to have the viewers vote and have fans build the show from the ground up."

Building the brand thorough interactivity was DMX Music's goal when it launched its

Music Awards

. DMX's inaugural award show allows subscribers to vote in an astounding 41 different musical categories, ranging from blues to Native American music to "junior diva," network senior vice president of music programming and brand marketing Christy Noel said.

The awards show, which is simulcast over the audio service's DMX Listening Room channel, allows users to hear the winning artist's complete song, allowing for lesser-known bands or music genres to be sampled by a broader audience base. Though the network didn't have final voting tallies, Noel said, the company's Web site [

] saw a major increase in traffic during the Oct. 20 event

"The show was created as a brand-builder and as another way to interact with our listeners and show our depth of music product," Noel said. "It gives us a way to promote ourselves in the music as well as the cable industry."


The widespread appeal of awards shows have paid dividends to both the industry and the networks that present them. The MTV
Video Music Awards
consistently ranks as one of the top-rated cable shows each year.

The September 2000 event was the most watched program on cable, delivering an 8.7 Nielsen Media Research rating. More importantly for MTV, the show generated a 10 rating among its coveted, target demographic of 12- to 34-year-olds.

"It's our highest rated show and, in the last couple of years, the highest entertainment show on cable," Toffler said. "For us it's like the Super Bowl. It's a way for us to showcase the best videos of the year the best artist on MTV, it gives an immense boost in record sales to the artists and it gives us a chance to highlight up-and-coming shows on MTV."

And operators have shared in the
s' success. Toffler said the network has been able to create local promotion and co-branding opportunities tied to the awards show.

More than 600 systems participated in
Video Music Awards

local ad-sales and marketing promotions last September, said the network. The 2000

sweepstakes promotions generated $3.3 million in local ad sales revenue, excluding tremendous amount of revenue generated from spots sold to local advertisers during the show.

"It's a great package to have and provides a high-profile event they can tie into and send their subscribers to," Toffler said. "As the event has grown, we've taken it to more of a local, grassroots level and worked with our affiliates locally."

Kids Choice Awards

is also a major ratings generator for the network, pulling in about a 12 rating among kids 6 to 11, and a 9.0 rating among kids 2 to 11, said the network. That certainly compares well to the 7 posted by Nick's

, the highest-rated kids' show on TV.

"It's a huge ratings performer and it's very satisfying to our advertisers," Nick's Zarghami said.


have become such a staple for ESPN that the network has established a full-time team to work year-round on the annual sports award show and related events and activities. Murray Quinn, who heads the effort, said this year's

will feature a full weekend of activities leading up to the ceremony.

The network will also look to expand the number of judges to include more sports reporters and executives.

"I think the

net a certain amount of prestige now, but we want to make it even bigger," she said.


The viewer popularity of these awards has allowed the networks to draw top entertainment talent. Once shunned by star athletes and entertainment types, executives say stars now clamor to appear on the award shows.

"It's safe to say pretty much that all the artists that have played on MTV throughout the year are desirous of performing on the show and, ultimately, winning the awards on the show," Toffler said. "It kind of went from us begging people to please come on the show to fending off the artists who want to be on the show."

Added ESPN's Quinn: "If you took a good look at last year's [

] show, you had [hockey great] Wayne Gretzky, [basketball superstar Michael] Jordan and [golf sensation] Tiger Woods all sitting in the same room. You can tell the impact of an event when you can draw top athletes and celebrities together to help celebrate the best in sports."

Even non-televised awards shows like the
DMX Music Awards

can attract top talent like Destiny's Child, Matchbox 20, Boyz II Men and Hanson.

"Awards shows are fun and everyone likes to win awards," Noel said. "In just our first show, we had tremendous label support, which is positive for the company."

But while cable's awards shows can turn out the stars and drive ratings, executives said some shows serve an even more important charitable or philanthropic purpose.


for example, have raised millions for the V Foundation, an organization crated to aid cancer research. The foundation is named after the late ESPN college basketball announcer Jim Valvano, who died of the disease months after the foundation was established during the 1993
ESPY Awards

The charge of Turner Broadcasting System's annual Trumpet Awards, which heralds the contributions of African-Americans, goes beyond ratings and network brand awareness to education and racial tolerance, according to the company.

Awards show creator Zenora Clayton said TBS created the show in 1993 not as a vehicle to build its brand or ratings, but as a public service and educational event that reflects its own commitment to diversity. A taped version of the show airs annually during Black History Month in February.

Past Trumpet Award winners include boxer and humanitarian Muhammad Ali, acclaimed author Maya Angelou, civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson, baseball home-run king Hank Aaron, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, singer and actress Lena Horne and Motown singing great Smokey Robinson.

"The show represents an opportunity for cable operators and the industry to fulfill a mission to inspire, educate and enlighten the public and its subscribers about the history of African-Americans," Clayton said. "TBS has showed its commitment to diversity by creating and televising the event and showcasing the missing pages of our history."

The Trumpet Awards are also an avenue for Turner to express its commitment to diversity on an external level beyond efforts to diversify its internal workforce, said TBS spokeswoman Ronnie Gunnerson.

"This is not just another television show put on just to generate ratings," Gunnerson said. "This is about integrity and commitment and respect to humankind that embodies the company as a whole."

The National Association of Minorities In Communications' annual Vision Awards isn't tied to a network-in fact, it doesn't have a national television outlet. But the event, which recognizes excellence in minority cable programming, is the only true, national awards show that exclusively honors cable programming since the
Cable ACE Awards

were disbanded several years ago.

"We decided to applaud those companies who reflect diversity within their programming," Vision Awards co-founder Kyle Bowser said.

The awards show, now in its seventh year, has grown significantly in terms of prestige since the industry increased its commitment to diverse programming.

Last year's show generated 150 submissions from a record 60 to 65 networks, and Bowser said executives now vie to have their programming recognized in at least one of the seven categories: children's programming, comedy, documentary, drama, music/variety and news/informational.

R. Thomas Umstead

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.