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TERRY GROSS, host:

Last night, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences handed out its prime time Emmy Awards in its annual celebration of the best that TV has to offer. Tonight, broadcast television officially begins its new fall season, with less fanfare and fewer viewers than it had even a few years ago.

Our TV critic David Bianculli looks at both subjects and what they have to do with one another.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Last year's Emmy Awards show, the one hosted by a tag-team roster of reality show hosts, was awful. Last night's, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, was delightful. But if you looked closely at what was happening and being said as awards were handed out, you realized something big was going on. Broadcast TV was losing its grip, and the revolution was being televised. Harris, in a terrifically confident and cocky turn as host, began the show with a fast-paced musical number that begged people to watch and put down their remotes.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, speaking for herself and co-presenter Amy Poehler, said they were quote, honored to be presenting on the last official year of network broadcast television, unquote. And almost every award went to either a low-rated broadcast program or one from cable, where audiences typically are limited to just a few million. Multiple awards last night went to the telemovie "Grey Gardens," on HBO; the miniseries "Little Dorrit," from Masterpiece Classic on PBS; the low-rated "30 Rock," on NBC; Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," on Comedy Central; and the critically adored "Mad Men," on AMC, which draws a very small but very fervent viewership.

All of them are excellent TV shows. But not one of them reaches what, even in today's broadcast TV terms, is considered a sizable mass audience. Quality TV is becoming a boutique business. The Emmy telecast did everything it could to disguise that and keep things moving. And by the way, the idea to divide the evening by genres except for the top awards, and hand out most of the awards in a clump? That was brilliant. But as people from the well-made, not-very-well-seen TV shows kept picking up awards - Kristin Chenoweth for the canceled-by-ABC "Pushing Daisies," Toni Collette for Showtime's "The United States of Tara," even Michael J. Fox for the FX series "Rescue Me" - it became clearer and clearer that the commercial broadcast networks, who once ruled in this arena, not only have lost their advantage, they've lost their way.

Matthew Weiner, whose "Mad Men" won the coveted Outstanding Drama Series award for the second year in a row, was being musically nudged off stage as the Emmy telecast was about to go a few minutes into overtime. But he had something to say that was very important, very true and for the major broadcast networks, very disheartening.

(Soundbite of 61st Annual Emmy Awards)

Mr. MATTHEW WEINER (Creator, "Mad Men"):…who - everybody says their show's a family. I will wrap that up in one sec. Everybody - but we literally spend all this time together. We fight all the time. We have…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WEINER:…we - everybody works so hard. And I'm glad that the show got its recognition. And it is an amazing time to work in TV. And I know that everything is changing. But I'm not afraid of it because I feel like all these different media, it's just more choice and more entertainment, and it's better for the viewers in the end. And I'm glad to be a part of it. So, thank you all very, very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

BIANCULLI: So, what can CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX and the CW do to combat this trend? They can start, or they should start, by making better programs. And that's where the new fall season comes in.

The launch of the fall TV season used to be a time of great expectations, not because of adaptations of Charles Dickens - "Little Dorrit" notwithstanding - but because a generation ago, viewers were eager to sample and maybe even embrace the new stuff the networks were turning out. And the networks were doing it in big, attention-getting lumps in the fall to build giant audiences, not only for the shows but for the ads because that's when the Big Three automakers from Detroit rolled out their new models.

But Detroit is a shadow of its former self, and so is broadcast television. This fall, among the more than two dozen new, prime-time shows offered by over-the-air TV, there's not much about which to get really excited. I can save a lot of time by singling out just two that have won me over already. One is "Glee," the Fox musical comedy series I hope you've already seen and added to your weekly viewing list. And the other is "Modern Family," the ABC single-camera, multifamily comedy that starts Wednesday. Its stars include Ed O'Neill from "Married with Children," and Julie Bowen from "Ed." And it's a comedy that's not only laugh-out-loud funny, but commendably unpredictable.

The truth of the matter, though, is that Matthew Weiner is right. At this point in TV history, in 2009, there are more wonderful options on cable than on broadcast. HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," which began its latest year last night opposite the Emmys, is the can't-miss series of the season, and not just because of its "Seinfeld" reunion plot. Showtime's "Dexter" returns next Sunday, "Mad Men" is still going on, and before long we'll have another season of AMC's spectacular "Breaking Bad." And while broadcast TV took the summer off, cable gave us terrific seasons of "True Blood," "Rescue Me" and others.

But even if cable is where it's at, the best shows on broadcast TV aren't receiving enough support. And for that, the blame belongs not with the networks, but with the viewers. Yes, ABC handled "Pushing Daisies" dreadfully after the writer's strike, but more people should have continued to support it. The death of NBC's "Life," that excellent cop series starring Damian Lewis, was due to viewer apathy, not a lack of quality. And though "30 Rock" keeps racking up well-deserved Emmys as best comedy, most people still refuse to watch it.

Edward R. Murrow's famous quote from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," used when he denounced McCarthyism in the 1950s, applies just as well today when looking at the fate of commercial broadcast television. Perhaps, as the quote goes, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.

GROSS: David Bianculli writes for TVWorthWatching.com.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of 61st Annual Emmy Awards)

(Soundbite of song, "Put Down the Remote")

Mr. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS (Singer): (Singing) Put down the remote. 'Cause this song what I wrote, is a welcome you should not miss. Put down the remote. Every note from this throat is like a not-to-be-Tivo'd kiss. Don't touch that dial. Yes, it's been quite a while since a dial was in style. But you know what I mean. Don't jump online. 'Cause this fine mug of mine needs a huge, high-def screen. Turn off that phone 'cause I want you alone for the treasures I've got to share. Don't hit that fridge - oh boy. Let's abridge your sweet derriere. Don't flip that switch. Aren't you…

GROSS: You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

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