It's probably the greatest moment in awards show history: A nude man streaked across the stage during the 1974 Academy Awards, prompting David Niven to quip from the podium that the offender had gotten a laugh by "showing off his shortcomings."
Niven's unforgettable quick-witted response came to mind this week with news of discussion among the four major networks about possibly splitting the Primetime Emmys into two shows.
The idea, according to The Wall Street Journal, would be to put all the categories related to mini-series and TV movies – areas dominated in recent years by HBO – into one show broadcast on cable and leave the rest for the usual marquee event on one of the major networks.
Sounds to us like a slap at HBO for doing great work – and a classic case of trying to grab the spotlight by showing off one's shortcomings.
If network executives are threatened by HBO or fear that many viewers might not care about awards for shows seen by a limited, pay-TV audience, there's a more appropriate way to respond: put on better programming.
The Emmys, at least in theory, are supposed to celebrate the best of TV. The event also is about who's wearing what dress, the host’s performance and whether your favorite program won or got the shaft.
Striking the right balance is key. This past Sunday's broadcast on NBC did the job quite well, largely thanks to Jimmy Fallon's strong comic turn at the helm, which kept the three-hour show sailing for the most part.
It also helped that the networks produced some great nominees this past season, like "The Good Wife" and "Modern Family," a wonderful newcomer that beat out such highly entertaining fare as “Glee,” "30 Rock" and "The Office" for best comedy.
But network TV, which is dealing with harsh economic realities, is in a schizophrenic phrase. Quality shows mix uneasily in prime time with reality and competition programs of varying value. The reality shows are relatively cheap to churn out, unlike, say, powerful mini-series such as HBO's "The Pacific."
HBO's victories with "The Pacific," "You Don't Know Jack" and "Temple Grandin" brought to the Emmys stage Tom Hanks and Al Pacino, whom we're betting (or at least hoping) pack more star power than Kate Gosselin (who was a willing punchline in a funny, self-mocking cameo during the show’s opening number).
Let's make a not-so-big leap and assume that it’s likely around this time next year Martin Scorsese's upcoming HBO mini-series "Boardwalk Empire" will be up for some Emmys.
Should one of entertainment’s great creators be shunted off to what inevitably will be a second-tier awards program? Should quality shows not get their due – and potential exposure to a wider audience – because of a possible network inferiority complex?
The Emmys should be about aspirations and inspiration, with deserved recognition spurring competition and investment in new, superior work – particularly from networks that in decades past gave us long-form classics like “Roots” and “Rich Man, Poor Man.”
Splitting the awards would be a laughable attempt to mask the shortcomings of TV emperors with no clothes.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.