Why the Emmys Need Adjusting
According to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Emmy's were originally a way to drum up publicity for the fledgling television industry. The Emmys were expected to let the American public know what they were missing - and hopefully make them want to buy a TV. The term "quality television" wasn't even in existence. It's likely that most people didn't even know what was on television - never mind what was good or not.
Looking at what the first Emmy Awards handed out in 1949, the public relations/information aspect is very clear . The first award was given for "Most Outstanding Personality"  . The other four, not in known order were: "Best Film made for Television," "Best Station," "Technical Award," and the "Most Popular" show . (How they figured that last one out - who knows, there were no Nielsen ratings at the time.) Only two of the awards seemed strictly about quality: the technical and the the best station. Those awards also didn't have a list of nominations, whereas the other Emmys had nomination lists, essentially showcasing the variety of things that were on TV. Those Emmys told the American public that TV: had great personality, was "popular" and had "films" - that you could watch in your home instead of paying at the theatre. So while the Emmys are touted as recognizing the best of television, it's original motivation for being was to let would-be viewers and advertisers know of televisions existence: a far more "public-relations & image building" opportunity than a concern with "quality" .
Certainly television has grown and changed since then. Now the term "most popular" is almost a guarantee to keep a show off the Emmy list and the term "quality television" is tossed around all the time. Supposedly this what the Emmy now celebrates. However, intentionally or not, it also still serves its original purpose. It draws the public's attention to what's on TV, and why television is worth watching. Honestly, how many people would know about "Mad Men" if it didn't win so many awards? The two plus million viewers who watch it on cable - a nielsen rating that would have sunk most shows on the broadcast networks - would be the extent of its popular knowledge. This fact brings me back to the Emmy Awards original purpose: promotion.
Emmy's purpose today seems to be designed to promote and bring subscribers to cable. Cable shows were not allowed to compete for the Emmy's until 1988. The cable industry had it's own awards show - "the ACE Awards" . The direct competition for Emmy awards has had cable shows - which has none of the content constraints of broadcast network shows - dominating the Emmy awards in the drama categories. Year after year, shows people without cable know little about take home the drama award emmys, letting the public know that the "good" shows are on cable.
This high profile of cable shows has certainly benefited the cable industry. According to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the percentage of daily viewers watching cable climbed from 32% in 1992 to 63% in 2012 , while the number of daily viewers watching network television reversed, going from 68% in 1992 to 32% in 2012 . Coincidental? Maybe. However, one cannot deny that the perception held by the general public is that the "better quality" shows are always on cable. Nor the fact that, year after year, particularly in the area of scripted drama, cable shows take the majority of awards. Subscribers to cable get stations like TNT, whose slogan is, "We know drama." In a similar vein is the slogan of HBO: "It's not TV, it's HBO." Cable stations all tend to highlight that the quality of their shows are better - and they have the Emmy's to prove it.
Some would argue that cable shows just are of better quality. After all they tend to be grittier, more adept at dealing with the heart of an issue, and employ more realistic dialogue. The assumption with this argument is that a cable show and a broadcast network show have the exact same freedoms to create however they'd like. The fact is, they don't. With the number of FCC regulations & advertising sponsorship parameters, broadcast networks have a much smaller area in which they can create.
The difference between a show produced for a broadcast network vs one produced for cable are akin to the similarities between a play and a movie. Take for example, the story of the Titanic. The musical Titanic took the Tony, but had it needed to compete against the film Titanic, the sheer spectacle of the film would have completely overshadowed it. Simply put, on a stage there is no way to create the the magnitude of visual stimuli and sense of realism that the film did in making that ship sink. Yet it is expected that a TV drama made for a broadcast network, where writers are counting the number of times words like "damn" and "hell" are used, should have the same quality of dialogue as a show like say, "The Sopranos." It's not possible, but that doesn't mean the show is of a lesser quality.
There is an art to a broadcast network drama that doesn't exist on cable. Making people care about characters who can only say or do but so much before the FCC, or Procter & Gamble say "absolutely not" isn't easy. Shows like NCIS, House, or Castle make viewers: fear criminals who never curse, and feel the horror of a murder without going through a visual step by step process, care whether a character they've met less than an hour ago lives or dies. Broadcast shows even make viewers root for couples that they know they'll never get to see naked - because it's NOT cable. The restrictions for Broadcast TV also could very well be why the "dramedy" a splice of comedy and drama writing, has become a mainstay on broadcast networks. Dramedy allows a show to tackle sensitive issues and intense situations, but adds a lighter touch that gets by FCC regulations and pacifies advertisers that fear offending their consumers. Naturally, the Emmy's (and basically all the tv award shows) refuse to acknowledge the dramedy's existence, although everyone who works in television clearly knows what it is. I haven't even gotten into production time constraints for a network show that cable doesn't have to worry about. Cable shows have shorter seasons and often much bigger budgets. Plus, if filming is taking longer or something comes up a cable show just pushes back when the series is going to start up again (Damages, Homeland.)
Broadcast Network television produces good quality shows that people enjoy and that speak to the human condition just as much as cable shows. However, you wouldn't know that judging by the Emmy's. Obviously cable does know the quality of these shows. Cable networks tend to buy the broadcast show syndication rights and show them on cable networks where some viewers - having never bothered to check them out on network (since nothing of quality is on network) - are seeing them for the very first time.
I am aware that the discussion about cable shows versus broadcast networks is hardly a new one. Over the last several years it has been pointed out numerous times that cable shows and broadcast network shows are apples & oranges. However, my point is that in light of these differences, cable shows shouldn't be competing against broadcast network shows. Emmy itself has set a precedent for allowing this kind of separation. While cable and broadcast network shows are all lumped together, Emmy has recently made separate categories for reality television. The reason is obvious: there is no way a reality show can compete with a scripted show. Those genres are also apples & oranges. Because the Emmys wanted to recognize a level of quality in the genre of reality TV, in part to secure the genre as a legitimate form in the television world, they have a separate category. This same logic should also be used when it comes to cable and network broadcast shows.
Currently, the forms of drama that can be done on a broadcast network rarely get recognition by the Emmys, and this creates the expectation that a broadcast network show should be like a cable show - which is impossible. As the major broadcast networks worry about losing more and more audience to cable they might want to think about the fact that every year the Emmy awards are basically advertising that the only television dramas worth watching are those on cable.