Revamp hopes to amplify TV auds, org's vision

The NAACP’s Image Awards ceremony is getting a makeover.

A celebration of the achievements of African-Americans in film, TV, literature and music, the event is entering the new millennium with ambitions to break ground on all fronts. The 32nd Image Awards will be double the size of previous shows, a change that planners hope will broaden audiences and strengthen the role of the NAACP, the award’s creators.

“We want to move to the next level,” says Charles Whitehead, awards chairman and member of the NAACP executive committee. “It means that the NAACP in its civil rights mission is giving recognition to those who deserve it in a first-line event.”

While the decision to revamp the Image Awards is part of the NAACP’s larger organizational vision, taking the step now was partly influenced by the show’s deteriorating ratings on Fox — which have been nearly cut in half over the past four years. It’s a situation of which the awards producers are well aware.

“When you have a strategy to move forward, you have to improve the plan when it’s not working,” says Ernestine Peters, awards executive director.

The NAACP has pinned its hopes for the show’s future on Suzanne de Passe, its new executive producer. Chairman of de Passe Entertainment, and former president of Motown Prods., de Passe has served as a producer in film and TV, including the “The Temptations,” winner of Emmy and Image awards. Her experience as an Image recipient adds a telling perspective to her mission.

“I was tremendously dismayed to find when the show aired that I was in this sort of zooming montage of recipients without hearing a word of what I said,” recalls de Passe, whose experience was not uncommon for past Image winners; nominees often went without being shown at all.

With 41 categories and as many as five special awards, de Passe decided that the only way to do the occasion justice was to televise two separate two-hour shows.

“We’re in a town where recognition is very sought after and it translates into additional work,” says de Passe, whose goal is to make sure that at least 80% of winners are on air compared with the current amount of less than 40%.

De Passe has reorganized the two nights to give coherence to the categories, which cover a wider swath of the entertainment business than any other major award, and to help both stand alone as individual TV events.

“Before we were trying to serve all the people all the time in one show,” she says. “Hopefully, this will bring continuity and a sense of the whole honoring mechanism.”

The first event, March 1, will feature music, TV variety, literary, talk and information, juvenile and soap opera awards. March 3′s edition will spotlight the film and television kudos. Both will be held at a new venue, the Universal Amphitheatre, instead of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, which will nearly double the size of the live audience to 6,600 each night.

Fox has committed to airing the traditional Image Awards for film and television March 9. De Passe says the March 1 event, called “Music and More,” will air on Fox at a later date, even if the NAACP has to buy the time itself. “When you make a lot of changes, it takes time to get everybody on board,” says de Passe.

Fox did not comment on the status of “Music and More,” but as to the show’s declining ratings, spokesman Scott Grogan says past Image Awards were hurt by a Thursday night slot. The new Saturday night date should improve results.

For her part, de Passe says last year’s 2.7 household rating with a 4 share could have been avoided.

“Last year they taped it in February and didn’t air it until April,” she says. “I believe the shelf life of an awards show is not much more than that of a fish.”

For the NAACP, there’s a lot riding on the latest edition of the Image Awards. The organization’s expenses have more than doubled for the new show, says exec director Peters, and part of the funds raised from sponsors will be reinvested to sustain the heightened commitment.

“We want to have a top-rated production where people will say this is the new ‘Image Awards,’” she says. “Our main objective is to have a greater crossover audience and increased ratings.”

De Passe says she hopes to more than meet those aspirations. “I want to do this live in a year or two. My mantra is one day they’ll say, ‘There’s the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, Globes and the Image.’

“The P.T. Barnum in me would like to be better than the Oscars, but that won’t happen, at least while I’m alive.”

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