ACE in the Hole

Discussing the unusual legacy of the CableACE Awards, the cable industry’s attempt to promote its quality to subscribers. Eventually, the Emmys did the job.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: This week, the Emmys put a spotlight on just how far we’ve gone down the streaming rabbit hole. Streaming services dominated the traditional acting categories. Apple TV+, a service that did not exist two years ago, won multiple awards for its discourse-dominating show Ted Lasso, while Netflix’s The Crown largely dominated the drama categories. As the Los Angeles Times noted, if not for Saturday Night Live, NBC would not have won any awards at all. And CBS, whose record for most trophies in a single year was tied by Netflix this year, was shut out entirely. (Though only because Stephen Colbert’s election-night special was aired on Showtime, y’know, to make room for actual news.) But there was a time when none of this would have been possible at the Emmys, because before 1988, the Emmys would not recognize cable television programming at all. Today’s Tedium talks about the CableACE (also known as ACE), an awards ceremony that existed because it had to. — Ernie @ Tedium

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“The ACE awards are given out for excellence in the cable industry. Considering the amount of excellence in the cable industry, there should only be six or seven of these awards given each year.”

— Former Washington Post television critic Tom Shales, a frequent hater of the ACE Awards, in a 1990 column ripping them to shreds. This was not a one-time hobby-horse: In a 1995 column, Shales wrote that the awards “remain stubbornly meaningless, even more meaningless than most of the 10,000 other awards doled out on TV.”

Cable ACE Award

Robin Williams’ ACE Award for Comic Relief III in 1989. (via Sothebys)

Why the cable industry’s awards ceremony straddled the line between artistic achievement and industry promotion

Every industry, no matter how emerging, has its own awards to celebrate. The web industry has the Webbys. Social media has the Shorty Awards (you are reading the words of a 2011 Shorty Awards nominee). YouTubers have the Streamy Awards.

This also narrows down to industries that don’t generally involve appearing on screens for a living. There are awards for every obscure industry you can think of, and even if you personally have no idea what a given industry is, one can guarantee that there are people excited to win a given trophy.

And the cable industry was once in that place itself with the ACE Awards, later known as the CableACE Awards. An awards ceremony around for about two decades starting in 1978, it represents a teething process of sorts for cable television as a medium.

It’s not that cable television was a bad medium in 1978, just an unformed one. This was a time when UHF signals were being used for pay-TV services, before moguls like Ted Turner had become household names. Where the channels were sometimes experimental, with some of those ideas (like C-SPAN, Nickelodeon, CNN, and MTV) working out, and others (like Genesis Storytime and QUBE Interactive Television) not.

As I’ve written in recent months, the history of cable television in particular is littered with failure.

In this context, it makes sense that the cable industry’s primary association, NCTA (first founded as the National Community Television Council in 1951) saw an opportunity to show off the best parts of its budding networks, at a time when original programming wasn’t always the easiest to find.

Around 1977, NCTA, then known as the National Cable and Television Association, began to offer awards to some of the shows airing on different cable stations under the National Cablecasting Awards banner. One of the earliest winners, per The Encyclopedia of Television, Cable, and Video, was HBO’s “The Bette Midler Show,” a 1976 tour recording.

Eventually, the call was made to formalize the process, creating the ACE Awards. If Tom Shales thought that the ACE Awards should give out only six or seven awards a year, he would have loved the first edition of the awards show, in which just three awards were given out—all of which went to HBO.

Early on, there were signs that the cable industry would find its way out of the wilderness, and it makes sense that HBO won big early on, because it offered some of the earliest glimmers of pay-television hope: In 1978, the pay-television network gave Jim Henson the opportunity to work on Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, one of the first ACE awards winners, and Henson followed up that success with perhaps cable television’s first truly iconic show, Fraggle Rock.

But early cable TV success stories often hewed closer to You Can’t Do That on Television and Mystery Science Theater 3000, two shows that came from homespun roots and had surprisingly dominant spans on their respective networks. It took a while before we got something like The Walking Dead or The Sopranos, where the production values were equivalent to or above what you might see in a movie theater.

Showtime promotes its CableACE award nominees in a promo circa 1993.

Perhaps for that reason, during the early years of the ACE Awards, NCTA felt that it was a good idea to aim for a big-tent approach, rather than something that only focused on the elite artistic triumphs. The reason why Tom Shales felt the need to annually dump on the ACE Awards is because, for a while, they were more chicken dinner than critic’s choice, where the ceremony felt like it existed to support a budding industry, rather than to support the arts.

Jill Marks, the editor of Cable Television Business, basically said as much in a 1985 letter from the editor encouraging readers to join the National Academy for Cable Programming, which had become the organizers of the ACE Awards.

“Because cable is in the business of selling programming, it’s vital that everyone understand what’s being offered and its value to subscribers,” she wrote.

The magazine emphasized this in a roundtable feature, on the awards, written by Marks, with NACP board chairman Ralph Baruch making the case most directly:

We have a major promotional opportunity with the ACE Awards in this industry. You can look at other industries and what they’ve done to see how well it’s worked out: the Grammies sell records, the Academy Awards sell movie tickets. We have the opportunity to develop ACE into something that reinforces the value of cable television to our current subscribers.

It wasn’t quite to the point of handing out participation trophies simply because you created a show on cable television, but certainly that’s what it could feel like sometimes.

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1992

The year that the National Academy of Cable Programming changed the name of the ACE Awards to the CableACE Awards. The reason for this was because there was some existing prior art: American Cinema Editors, a society for film editors known as ACE, predated the awards ceremony by more than 30 years, and had an ACE Awards of its own. The groups, already working in similar industries, faced a legal conflict before the name change.

E G Marshall ACE Awards

Actor E.G. Marshall, the host of the local ACE Awards. (via C-SPAN)

If you want to see the cable industry celebrate itself before it went Hollywood, watch this video on C-SPAN

A good example of what I mean by the “participation trophy” comparison appears in the C-SPAN archives, in which a fully-encased-in-amber video of the 1984 Local ACE Awards, lasting nearly two hours, has been sitting around for nearly 40 years, waiting for me to discover it. Recorded at Ford’s Theatre (yes, that one) in Washington, D.C., the event feels like it existed to promote the cable industry to Washington more than it existed to promote cable as an artistic medium. That, of course, is not a knock on any of the winners, who in many ways represented the YouTube creators of their day, or even the ceremony itself. If anything, it’s a reality of advocacy—if you want to promote your industry, that industry has to be in the face of Washington from time to time.

Host E.G. Marshall, whose long career in Hollywood (most notably as one of the 12 Angry Men) landed in the cable industry in the early ’80s, said this of the batch of nominees that night:

This evening, there are 96 nominees from 52 different cable systems. This grows out of over 800 entries submitted to a distinguished panel of judges by more than 200 cable systems, representing virtually every state in the union. That means you’re all part of the act because these nominations grow right out of our own backyards, your own local communities, which are, after all, the very heartbeat of America.

There were, admittedly, some big names on the stage that night, including boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard and famed MTV VJ Nina Blackwood. But we were in the pre-“golden era” of television, and it showed. The event was full of entertainers who are so obscure that if you search for their names on Google, nothing comes up. You are literally looking at their greatest moment.

Batlimore Lampoon

Comedians from the comedy troupe the Baltimore Lampoon, of which a grand total of 17 (now 18) results show up for on Google. Here’s a New York Times article that mentions them.

So no, this is not Breaking Bad-quality entertainment here. But on the other hand, there is something really kind of lovable about it. These are people being appreciated by an industry that would someday become dominant in peoples’ lives, that would be completely under the radar if not for this ceremony. You have to appreciate that someone brought together this community.

In just a decade or two, most of the local cable systems that leaned on local productions like these would eventually fall into the mealy gullet of mergerdom, as cable industry consolidation changed the industry forever.

But for years, cable television was a concept for which the entertainment industry had not fully caught up. And the growing pains were actually significantly greater than they were for streaming services, which at least could leverage the proof of concept that cable television offered. Later controversy around its primary star aside, Netflix turned House of Cards into an entire universe of content in the span of eight years, which is really wild to consider, given that it took the cable industry nearly a quarter-century to reach a similar level of success with its content offerings.

“There is now a veritable awards industry, complete with tchotchkes, and it’s spreading.”

— Robert Marx, director of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, discussing the growing prominence of awards in the arts in a 1996 New York Times piece that noted that, on any given night, someone was putting on an awards ceremony in New York. (Fun fact: The piece is written by Judith Miller, who later gained prominence or infamy, depending on your view, for her reporting on weapons of mass destruction, which some believe led to the Iraq War.) The piece notes another factor that often drives the growth of awards: Revenue generation, on both sides of the equation. Publishers will willingly spend thousands of dollars on entries to draw attention to a work, be it a book, film, or TV show, but if they actually win something, the added attention can more than cover the costs of the entry. Those who put on the awards benefit either way. “Winning prizes, of course, brings psychic satisfaction, particularly if it translates into future commercial value,” Miller wrote.

How the CableACE Awards evolved into irrelevance

In 1997, the creators of South Park, tasked with announcing an award at that year’s CableACE Awards, put together an animation that perfectly encapsulated everything that was sort of problematic about the CableACE Awards as a cultural phenomenon.

Tom Shales would have been proud.

The video implies that the South Park characters took part in a much longer, more obscure non-televised ceremony the night before, in which winners were given a $5 gift certificate for Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles.

“Now, remember: there are no losers at the CableACE Awards, only people who are less likely to have another season,” Kyle Broflovski said in a comment that hilariously put the problem into context.

One could argue that the Grammy Awards in particular still suffer from this general problem of awards glut, though you can make the case that it at least makes sense there due to the number of distinct types of music.

A promo for the awards, circa 1991.

The CableACE Awards faced a similar problem—by 1997, there were 84 separate awards handed out. Due to the sheer variety of content on cable—including miniseries, children’s television, sports programming, and documentary programming—awards show sprawl was simply the name of the game.

(South Park won that year, but received this backhanded compliment from Variety: “And while it may prove painful to some, we now live in a world in which Comedy Central’s warped adult cartoon series South Park is an award winner.” South Park has now been on the air four seasons longer than the CableACE Awards, and its creators are one Academy Award away from an EGOT.)

Another issue is that the awards ceremony seemed strongly skewed in favor of the pay-TV networks, which meant that people who primarily worked in that medium, like late comedian Garry Shandling, would often have a lot of CableACE awards to their name. Shandling, whose Showtime-based (and Fox-moonlighting) It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and HBO-based The Larry Sanders Show each rank as some of the most critically acclaimed shows in the early years of cable, helped him personally win a dozen CableACE awards over a decade-long span. During that same period, he was nominated for 19 Emmy awards, winning once.

As a network, HBO would basically dominate the CableACE Awards yearly—including 32 wins in 1997 alone. Eventually, HBO would start to get nominated for actual Emmys around 1988, when the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences changed its rules to allow cable shows to be honored alongside broadcast networks. By 1997, HBO was averaging half a dozen Emmy wins per year, and in 2004, HBO had come to dominate the awards ceremony, winning the most awards that year, including Outstanding Drama Series for The Sopranos.

It became clear that if the goal was to earn prestige for the cable industry, the cable industry was doing it just fine with the Emmy Awards, without running into annual mockery at the hands of critics like Tom Shales.

So perhaps for that reason, the cable industry made the call to kill the CableACE Awards in 1998, with Variety describing a memo shared with the major cable networks as stating, “Stacked up against the Emmys and the Golden Globes, CableACE is not as significant in terms of prestige and value.”

It didn’t get ratings (a bad thing, given that some years, it was aired on 12 separate cable networks simultaneously), and had a reputation as a dumping ground of industry honors. It cost a lot of money for the networks to submit awards each year—$400 per show—with little upside. And many cable shows were actually receiving honors in more traditional mediums. So it was most assuredly a no-brainer, and given the fact that cable television soon dominated the Emmys and Golden Globes, it felt like the right call.

The local CableACE awards, of the kind that took place at Ford’s Theatre in 1984, evolved into the Community Spirit Awards, which continued on for a few more years. (C-SPAN has video of that, too.)

It was not always guaranteed that the cable industry would become as dominant as it became, to the point where tens of millions of people still have subscriptions of some form, cord-cutting notwithstanding.

But eventually the eyeballs followed along and cable became the primary way in which many people watched television. Now the streaming services dominate this role.

But what’s truly fascinating is that, if you look at television as a continuum, starting with traditional broadcast, evolving through cable television, and into streaming, based on awards alone, streaming is already a more dominant medium based on level of critical acclaim and awards from peers than cable television ever was. Two decades ago, it was common for HBO to win a few major awards at the Emmys. A decade ago, other networks started to win and be nominated more often.

But in 2021, literally only one of the major Emmy awards went to a traditional broadcast network—NBC winning Variety Sketch Series for Saturday Night Live. HBO is still very much in the conversation, but where it was once surrounded by NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox, it’s now surrounded by Netflix, Apple TV+, HBO Max, and Disney+. What it took literal decades for the cable industry to build, streaming services have done in a handful of years.

It makes one wonder if traditional broadcasters will eventually need a CableACE Awards of their own.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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