"Tonight," boomed an HBO announcer, "the spotlight shines on cable excellence." Gee, who knew they made spotlights that small? It must have been one of those teeny-tiny, itty-bitty, eeny-weeny spotlights. Cable TV is not exactly the lamp of knowledge, after all. The glow from its fire surely does not light the world.
No, cable TV remains the K mart of television. It's still a shopping mall in the bad part of town. It's the Motel 6 of the video highway.
But the purpose of the 1988 "Ace" Awards, for Achievement in Cable Excellence, was to celebrate cable in all its imagined wonderfulness. This was accomplished on HBO Sunday with a 2-hour 20-minute awards show that looked a lot like every other awards show, but cheaper. And with more than the usual number of winners ashamed to show up.
The program was a public relations gimmick for the cable industry, nothing more. And so the parceling out of awards looked quixotically equitable. Nearly every cable service got something -- even CBN, where the fare consists almost entirely of religious talk shows and old network hand-me-downs.
There are contributions to American life of which cable can be extremely proud: namely, C-Span and C-Span II, which transmit proceedings of the House and Senate and all kinds of informational programming from Washington and elsewhere. The C-Spans won no awards.
Then there's the Cable News Network (CNN), a bold if sometimes faltering venture that introduced the concept of round-the-clock TV news (a boon or a nightmare, depending on your point of view, perhaps). CNN took a great leap forward with its telecast last year of the Iran-contra hearings, which the regular networks carried only sporadically. And CNN's hearings coverage was up for an Ace. But it lost, to some documentary about Islam that nobody saw.
Indeed, some of the choices made by the Ace award judges, besides being incredibly dumb, were downright suspicious. The Arts & Entertainment Network won 14 Aces, but its toniest programming consists of imported shows it buys from British television, or cofinances. Otherwise, it's a shoestring operation fueled by old, sometimes ancient, network reruns.
By giving Ace awards to distinguished British actors in those A&E imports, however, the organizers of the Ace awards (chiefly, the National Cable Television Association) may have thought they could polish up cable's image. John Gielgud won an Ace! What a golden moment in his career! But he couldn't be there. He was probably busy watering his gladioluses.
It didn't seem to matter if hardly anyone ever saw, or even heard of, some of the programs and personalities that won. Garry Shandling, whose "It's Garry Shandling's Show" is one of the brightest baubles in all of TV, not just in cable, seemed a cinch to win for best actor in a comedy series. But no, the award went to Paul Eddington of "Yes, Prime Minister" on A&E.
Shandling, whose show did win for best comedy writing and directing, came out to accept the writing prize (with Alan Zweibel) and asked, "First of all, who's Paul Eddington?" He wasn't being a bad sport. Everybody in the place seemed to be asking that question.
The Ace for best comedy series, meanwhile, went to A&E's "Blackadder II." Ah yes, the show that has all America talking. Maybe the cable industry is mad at Shandling because he sold his show to the Fox Network so that more people can see it. (It will continue on Showtime, too.)
These Ace judges must be real losers themselves -- or zanies, at least. Among the nominees in the 36 categories was "Sword of Gideon," an HBO movie that turned out so bad even HBO was embarrassed by it. "Hard Knocks," a repellent stinker on Showtime, also got a nomination.
One could see how narrow the cable programming spectrum really is, though, by the nominees in the drama series categories, including acting, writing and directing. Every nominee was from an episode of either "The Hitchhiker" (HBO) or "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (USA Network). That's it for drama series on cable.
Thus was there a "hitch" in the Ace awards. Two of them.
Some winners were richly deserving. The Discovery Channel won for its week of Soviet television. The indefatigable Larry King (CNN) won for best interviewer; King recently turned down a fabulous offer from ABC to stay in cable. And Robin Williams won, justifiably, for his whirling-dervish HBO comedy special "Live at the Met."
And "Long Gone," a sensational baseball movie from HBO, won a couple of Aces, one for director Martin Davidson. Accepting, he recalled a memorable line of graffiti he'd seen in Florida: "Only the mediocre are at their best all the time."
But perhaps the wisest words of the night were from comic Bob Goldthwait, who pointed out that with cable now in more than 50 percent of U.S. TV homes, many cable shows will next year be eligible for the more established and much more prestigious Emmy awards. He said nobody would care about the Ace event anymore and called it "the Hindenburg of award shows."
Indeed, Goldthwait was even wiser a bit earlier, when he walked out on the stage after about 90 minutes of Ace awards nonsense. "I don't want to be rude," he said, "but am I the only person here that's bored out of their skull?"