Emmys fall prey to ‘Idol’ worship

FIRST IT WAS MISS AMERICA WHO was forced to tart herself up by the perceived need to compete with so-called reality TV. Now, perhaps inevitably, it’s the Emmys.

Among the sundry reasons 2005 will be memorable in TV circles, let it be recorded as the year the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences allowed its annual showcase to make like an aging series and jump the shark — or more accurately, take a pratfall into a vat of Clearasil.

Then again, it was simply a matter of time. At 57, the old girl has already left the most desirable demographics in the rearview mirror.

“There’s nothing tragic about being 50,” Joe Gillis, the screenwriter played by William Holden, says in the classic “Sunset Blvd.” “Not unless you’re trying to be 25.”

There, in a nutshell, is the age-old (and old-age) problem the Emmys have encountered. Past efforts to look younger have been mostly cosmetic and met with varying degrees of success, from having Conan O’Brien host the show (good) to showing Garry Shandling in front of a urinal last year next to Ray Romano and Chris Rock (bad).

So despite only recently deciding that so-called reality TV even merits a place in the main telecast, the academy is pandering to younger demos by introducing a reality-inspired play-along element into the upcoming broadcast.

Lest someone think this description is manipulated or concocted, I’ll quote from the press release: “Throughout the show, in an ‘American Idol’-esque contest entitled ‘Emmy Idol,’ today’s top television and music personalities will trigger fans’ memories of some of their favorite television theme songs.” Viewers can then go online to choose their favorite, with the winner to be announced toward the broadcast’s conclusion.

Proving the producers possess a sense of humor, William Shatner will be among the performers, though it’ll be hard to match his legendary renditions of “Rocket Man” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” (He’ll actually reprise the “Star Trek” theme, with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. Set TiVo on “Seriously, I’m ordering you to record this.”)

Others scheduled to appear include “Veronica Mars” star Kristen Bell singing “Fame” and “Will & Grace’s” Megan Mullally performing the “Green Acres” theme with Donald Trump.

Funny, isn’t it, how awards can get in the way of producing an awards show.

The “Emmy Idol” gimmick would be less irritating if it didn’t follow an attempt to jettison multiple categories from the broadcast, ostensibly to emphasize variety-show trappings and offset downward-trending ratings. Never mind that virtually all award show ratings have followed the same descending trajectory, in large part because there’s a different one on approximately every 15 minutes.

So after some wrestling by various peer groups and members of the old guard, the academy caved to TV reality by embracing reality TV. Sure, they managed to resist pressure to punt writers and directors off the primary telecast by taping their acceptance speeches in advance, but they had to allow their signature event to adopt conventions of a genre many in the industry still view with suspicion, even contempt, to entice young adults.

This isn’t to say the Emmys are such a sacred institution that change and innovation can’t be tolerated. Fragmentation has already made it less likely that viewers will harbor a strong rooting interest in programs honored, especially when series like Fox’s “Arrested Development” or HBO’s “Deadwood” — watched by a fraction of “CSI’s” audience — are among the top contenders.

Yet the irony is that Emmy ratings would probably rebound even without the vaudeville gimmicks, thanks to a long-awaited breakthrough among the nominees. After HBO paraded to the stage until the carpet was bare in 2004, ABC has placed two popular first-year hits in serious contention with “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” — helping inject fresh blood, and considerable glamour, into proceedings that admittedly suffered from repetition of the same-old, same-old in the past.

The more pertinent question is what the Emmys hope to represent going forward. Higher ratings and reaching out to a younger audience are understandable goals, but there’s a point where pursuit of those priorities risks undermining the organization’s mandate to “recognize excellence” — until it makes more sense to hand out the awards in a ballroom, where they won’t interrupt the made-for-TV festivities.

That might sound drastic, but it’s really not such a preposterous leap. Because with apologies to the fat lady, in this case, the party’s over as soon as William Shatner sings.

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