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The Rewards of Awards

10/21/2005 8:00 PM Eastern

It could be said that the cable industry deserves an award for, well, televising awards. As awards shows have multiplied, so too have the benefits for the many cable channels that televise them. Networks such as ESPN, MTV: Music Television and Black Entertainment Television have parlayed self-branded award shows into network-defining franchises that also help build other ancillary video platforms such as broadband and wireless services.

Shows like MTV’s Video Music Awards, Country Music Television’s The CMT Music Awards, The BET Awards, ESPN’s The ESPY Awards and the TV Land Awards also provide cable networks with an opportunity to strengthen important ties with the entertainment community.

A CABLE STAPLE

Cable networks have successfully cultivated their own audience-targeted awards shows. They started out in the late 1980s with the VMAs, Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards and The CMT Awards. More recent additions include The BET Comedy Awards. All told, such events perennially rank among highest rated non-sports events in cable.

This year is no exception: The Aug. 28 VMA’s 6.2 household rating still stands as the highest-rated, non-sports event this year, while a network record 6.6 million viewers tuned in to BET’s June 28 2005 BET Awards. Nickelodeon’s April 2 Kids’ Choice Award’s 2.5 million viewers ages 6-11 set a record for the most viewers for a kids-oriented awards show. And the 9.9 million viewers tuning into the April 11 CMT Music Awards made it the most watched show in the network’s history.

Having established a beachhead on cable, networks are now using these franchises to help build other distribution platforms including broadband, wireless and interactive applications.

For example, awards shows provide opportunities for viewers to vote on specific categories via phone or the Internet. For the last two years, ESPN has given viewers complete control over the winners of the 13-year-old ESPY Awards, according to network executives. This year, more than 10 million viewers voted for ESPY winners in 36 different categories on the network Web sites ESPN.com (www.espn.com) and ESPNdeportes.com (www.espndeportes.com).

BET notched nearly 1 million online votes for its Viewers Choice Award category in the weeks leading up to, and during, the 2005 BET Awards.

“Award shows are for a discreet amount of time, but everybody gets around it from a viewers and talent standpoint,” says Michael Pickrum, chief operating officer of Bet.com and senior vice president of interactive services at BET. “If you can complement that with other content, it seems to work well.”

Viacom Inc. has taken interactivity to the next level by providing virtual broadband channels for its popular awards shows such as MTV’s VMAs and VH1’s Hip-Hop Honors. There are dedicated areas for both shows within each network’s broadband video sites — MTV Overdrive (www.mtv.com/overdrive) and VH1’s VSpot (www.vh1.com/vspot).

Viewers can download exclusive pre- and post-show clips, view on-demand performance clips from the show and chat about who wore what. The sites also included podcasts and wireless downloads, as well as new and vintage music videos from the artists.

“The audience wants to control their experience with our awards shows,” says MTV president Christina Norman. “They want to be able to sit down in their house with their friends and watch it the night it’s on and have that great collective community experience.”

Both networks have certainly struck a cord with consumers: MTV executives say more than 13 million unique video streams were downloaded in the month after the August live show. VH1 reported 6 million streams were delivered to viewers seeking additional coverage of the Sept. 26 Hip-Hop Honors awards — a 100% increase from the 2004 event.

“It really gives us the ability to say that while Hip-Hop Honors is going to be on Monday night at 9 p.m. Guess what? You can experience it before during and after the show on all the other platforms that VH1 has to offer,” says VH1 general manager Tom Calderone.

“We want to extend the experience of the shows in all different ways and to really surround the viewer with as many entry points to the awards experience as possible,” says Norman, who will utilize the on-demand opportunities of MTV Overdrive for the next year’s MTV Movie Awards event.

Along with providing content for other platforms, the award shows have become a cultural calling card for both viewers and, equally as important for the networks, the Hollywood community. Most of these shows are generating almost as much red carpet coverage and memorable moments from the entertainment community as do traditional award staples like the Grammys or the Oscars. (Remember the infamous Madonna-Brittney Spears “kiss” from the 2003 VMA’s?)

It’s not uncommon to see Tom Cruise getting slimed at the Kids’ Choice Awards or Beyonce belting out her latest hit on the BET Awards because of the prominence and respect such shows have garnered through its audience appeal.

Backing 'Black Film’ Shows

Turner Network Television and TBS executive vice president Steve Koonin says that gaining the trust and acceptance of the Hollywood community is an important reason why such events are valuable to the network. Not so coincidentally, the network was the only network to televise the Black Film Awards earlier this month. While TNT did not actually create the show, its parent company Time Warner Inc. has sponsored the 8-year old show in the past.

Koonin hopes the event — which highlights African-Americans in film and features such stars as Cedric The Entertainer, Quincy Jones and Ruby Dee — will resonate with the network’s African-American audience.

“We do extraordinarily well in attracting African-American viewers,” Koonin says. “If it works from a ratings standpoint, then we have a wonderful franchise. If it doesn’t work, we talk to a very incredibly important audience in a respectful way. We win all the way around.”

Nickelodeon “wins” in a slightly different way. Executive vice president Cyma Zarghami says the ability to attract star power to the Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards helps keep the show fresh and hip.

“Many top stars including Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz have taken advantage of the influence and reach of the show, and by using it as a platform to promote their upcoming projects,” she says.

September