Reviews > Television

Keeping it real

Television | The Emmys rejected "reality shows" but still said much about TV today

Issue: "False witnesses?," Oct. 5, 2002

EVEN MORE THAN THE ACADEMY Awards, the Emmy Awards ceremony is a bloated, obsequious occasion for the entertainment industry to congratulate itself on a job well done. However fawning, though, the Emmys are also television's annual State of the Union address. So what can we learn from last week's 54th Annual Emmy Awards?

The best (and worst) programming is on pay cable.

The Emmys came down to a battle between NBC and HBO, each of which went home with 24 awards. The other major networks fell well behind. NBC's The West Wing and Friends were some of the big winners of the night, but the only really memorable programs given awards this year were on pay cable: the Winston Churchill bio The Gathering Storm and the World War II miniseries Band of Brothers.

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On a night when television celebrates its "best," it became clear that while broadcast networks offer some slick, mildly entertaining programming, they are unable-or unwilling-to put serious effort into competing with HBO in the made-for-TV movie and miniseries categories. HBO has dominated these categories for the past 10 years-and deservedly so.

But to access the occasional gripping historical drama available on pay cable, viewers also invite the likes of Sex and the City and the morbidly vulgar Six Feet Under into their homes.

There is still no place for "reality TV" at the Emmys.

Notably absent from the Sunday night Emmy broadcast was television's strongest recent trend: "reality" programming. Sure, there was a "nonfiction" award given during an earlier, nontelevised ceremony (won by MTV's The Osbournes), but, aside from an appearance by hard rock's First Family to present an award, reality programs were without a representative.

Reality programming has become the emptiest form of entertainment available on television, and little, if any, of it has any lasting significance. Although far from anything resembling the "real" world, these programs don't reflect any particular artistic, moral, or social vision. Neither do they have the scientific credibility (they are far too artificial and voyeuristic) to be useful as social experiments. And neither do they have a place, as the Emmys attest, on awards shows.

The television industry is hopelessly self-righteous.

Emmy organizers asked Rudy Giuliani to present a special Governors Award to the four networks (CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox) for their participation in the America: A Tribute to Heroes special that aired shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. The networks were congratulated for forgoing their normal program schedules to air the event simultaneously, commercial free.

The award made what was a decent decision seem cheap, self-righteous, and completely out of touch with reality. Even at the time, the Heroes special seemed like a desperate attempt to shift the country's focus back to its entertainers, who had spent a painful week completely out of the spotlight. The program did, however, raise a lot of money for disaster relief.

Apparently the success of the event itself was not enough to satisfy the industry, so formal recognition was in order. Robin Schwartz, chairman of the Governors Award Committee, helped us understand that the industry has a rational perspective on its contribution, however. The show, she said, "reflected the best of our industry, the best of our nation and the best of our humanity." Well, then: Good job!

If television is a spiritual wasteland, then Oprah is its queen. "I am a human being. Nothing human is alien to me." This is how Oprah began her acceptance speech, after receiving the first ever Bob Hope Humanitarian Award at the Emmys, quoting from the ancient playwright Terrence.

Although she was presented with the Emmy equivalent of sainthood, it was never clear exactly what Oprah had done to deserve so high an honor. The Terrence quote has become a touchstone of modern cultural relativists, and was just the beginning of Oprah's longwinded homily on what it is that she-and everyone else-wants. "We are all just regular people, seeking the same thing ... we all just want to know that we matter.... The greatest pain in life is to be invisible ... we all just want to be heard." There were many more wants and needs included, apparently most of which Oprah can satisfy, promising to become "even more worthy of tonight's honor."

Oprah may have given daytime television some degree of class, but the cult of self-absorption for which she is a chief apologist has come to dominate the airwaves. A fitting choice for a TV saint, to be sure.

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