If actors walk, the big show will not go on

See who won an Emmy during the 1980 SAG strike.
No stars, no show.

That’s the quick take on the 53rd annual Emmy Awards should the Hollywood labor drama play out with a strike until mid-September, when Hollywood gathers to fete the small screen’s best and brightest.

“It’s hard to celebrate if you’re in the middle of a labor action,” says Meryl Marshall-Daniels, chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which gives out the Prime Time Emmys. “Our goal would be to postpone it until we really can celebrate together. It’s not a celebration when the actors are absent.”

Few observers, if any, are predicting a strike by the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, which between them represent about 135,000 performers. But without a settlement — like the Writers Guild of America reached a month ago with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers — all bets are off if the existing contract expires June 30. It was just last year that the two actors guilds staged a six-month strike against advertisers.

But when the curtain goes up Sept. 16 on the Emmy Awards at Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium, the ATAS wants viewers to think good thoughts about the medium, and even celebrate some anniversaries, such like the 50th of both “I Love Lucy” and “Hallmark Hall of Fame.” One mark the org will likely ignore is the 21 years since the night actors boycotted the kudocast to pressure the networks into settling a seven-week strike.

That show — co-hosted by Steve Allen and Dick Clark after emcees Bob Newhart, Michael Landon and Lee Remick canceled — was notable for Powers Boothe being the only winning actor to claim his statuette at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. (He won best actor in a limited series or special for “Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones.”)

“What was very clear that night is there’s no way to celebrate excellence in the industry with a significant portion of the industry absent,” says Marshall-Daniels, who was an exec at NBC at the time. “It’s like having a birthday party in the midst of a family fight. It takes all of the excitement and joy out of it.”

To avoid the possibility of having to light candles without many of the guests, the ATAS and broadcaster CBS have set an alternate Sunday night date in October and another one during November as a contingency.

The hope is to leave them there, says ATAS prexy Jim Chabin.

“For a great show, you need great writing and great stars,” he says. “The experience 20 years ago probably is still in the back of the minds of some of the senior leadership, and we’d prefer to not repeat the same history again.”

Considering the labor turmoil leading up to the 1980 kudocast, the show itself ran relatively smoothly. The revised theme was showcasing not the striking thesps but the behind-the-camera talent in the creative and technical arts. For the most part, producers and network execs served as presenters, and then they would quickly accept on behalf of the absent winners.

“Certainly everyone was on time, that’s for sure,” says veteran helmer Walter C. Miller, who watched the proceedings unfold from the director’s chair. “I didn’t have any decisions about … the normal things that happen on these shows. It went very well.”

That’s also how comedian Tom Smothers remembers it.

“It was a pretty relaxed and easy show, even though there was that tension in the background,” says Smothers, who presented a couple of awards and cut-up onstage with brother Tom.

Miller doesn’t remember any serious discussions about postponing the Emmys that year.

Still, one event that happened on his way to the Pasadena Civic stays with him: getting stopped for speeding.

“I said to the policeman, ‘I can’t believe it; this on top of everything else. How would you like to be a presenter on the Emmy Awards?’ He said, ‘You have enough trouble,’ and let me go.”

Should actors actually pick up their picket signs, organizers of the Prime Time Emmys expect everything leading up to the show to continue as planned: Nomination ballots are being sent to ATAS voters this week; they will need to be filled out and returned by June 22; the finalists in each category will be announced July 12; and then final “for your consideration” campaigns will begin in earnest.

“The main thing for us is the judging process will take place in a timely fashion regardless,” says Marshall-Daniels. “There’s nothing about the judging process that will be impacted by the negotiations, and that’s key for us. It’s only a question of when those envelopes are opened.”

Concerning the telecast itself, a minimum of about three weeks would be needed to prepare, which means (if there’s a strike) late August is decision time on whether to go ahead with the show Sept. 16, or to push it back until October or November.

From a viewership perspective, avoiding a starless night is the best course for both the ATAS and the Eye network to take.

And Chabin sees another plus in waiting.

“By airing the telecast after any strike was over, it would be a great opportunity for the television community to come together in a united and exciting way,” he says. “Then we could really celebrate the great things that happen on television.”

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