LOS ANGELES - When the Emmy Awards air tonight, more is at stake than whether "30 Rock" wins its fourth consecutive best-series trophy, "Mad Men" its third or "Glee" its first.
A crucial tally will be the ratings - ammunition for either the big four networks or the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences as the two sides negotiate a new contract for the telecast.
The current agreement, reached in 2002 and expiring this year, created an annual network rotation that brought the ceremony to ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC, and gave the TV academy a huge boost in its license fees.
Now the Emmy show has a chance to prove it's riding a wave that has lifted other awards broadcasts this year, with viewership up for shows including the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the Grammys.
But what Emmy organizers also might covet is a counteroffer. Eight years ago, cable's HBO made a splash by bidding to wrest away the ceremony with a $10 million annual license fee when the networks were offering $3.3 million.
"Nothing can help your negotiation more than if you have another offer on the table," said writer-producer Bryce Zabel, who was academy chairman and CEO at the time. "We had a strong argument that the license fee should go up, but it made it easier to achieve with another offer."
Networks ultimately agreed to an eight-year deal with license fees of $4.5 million annually for the first four years and $7.5 million per year for the next four.
The academy and the networks declined comment on current negotiations.
So far, there has been no overt interest shown in the Emmys by HBO or major basic cable networks, such as Turner's TNT or TBS.
Jimmy Fallon, host of tonight's 62nd Annual Primetime Emmys, airing on NBC, put in a measured vote for broadcast over cable.
"There's probably a good case on either side ... but everyone who has television can see the networks. To me, that's always better," he said.
Also shadowing the Emmy talks is a New York-based competitor that's in the planning stages. The proposed Paley Center for Media Honors is aiming for a 2012 launch, possibly in spring when the networks present the following season's programs to Manhattan ad buyers.
An exploratory committee with high-profile studio, network and other industry executives is weighing options for categories and the selection process. One proposal: giving the public a voting role with an eye toward popularizing the winners.
Such an approach would appeal to the networks, which have seen their top-rated programs such as CBS' "NCIS" and "The Mentalist" snubbed on Emmy night, while lower-rated but acclaimed cable shows including AMC's "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad" collect trophies and free promotion.
Although multiple awards shows can coexist - the Golden Globes cover both movie and TV turf, and there are a number of music industry honors besides the Grammys - the Emmys are struggling for attention.
In 2008, the Emmy telecast hit an all-time viewership low of 12.3 million. Last year, the show rebounded when an additional 1 million people tuned in for a total audience of 13.3 million.
Host Neil Patrick Harris earned critical plaudits and shared credit for the increase with executive producer Don Mischer, who returns this year. But other awards ceremonies have reaped greater benefits from renewed interest in "event" television, driven by sales of high-definition, big-screen TV sets along with the chance for online chatter about live programs.
Compared to last year, Academy Award and Golden Globe viewership both rose 14 percent while the Grammys were up a whopping 36 percent. The Emmys posted a single-digit increase of 8 percent.
Against the yardstick of Oscars, the king of ceremonies, the Emmys look especially puny. Last March's movie awards drew more than 40 million viewers and 30-second commercial spots went for up to $1.5 million, according to an Advertising Age magazine estimate - explaining the $50 million-plus license fee the ceremony's longtime home, ABC, is willing to pay.
Whether the Emmy ceremony soars or slumps, industry insiders and observers consider it unlikely broadcasters will abandon the awards. Networks "would be foolish not to continue airing the Emmys. ... It would be like admitting that they can't produce high-quality programming anymore," said independent media analyst Steve Sternberg.
With more broadcast shows including CBS' "The Good Wife" and ABC's "Modern Family" up for major honors Sunday, he added, maybe the networks will be "back in the awards game this year. And the Emmys are still a good show to air right before the new season starts."
Analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television said the Emmys and the networks remain a good fit.
"It's a celebration of television and the majority of viewing for television is still on the broadcast networks. ... I would think we'd want to continue to celebrate our own industry, which in essence is the broadcast industry," Carroll said.
'62nd Annual Primetime
Airs 8 tonight
on WCAU-TV 10 and