AS WE EMBARK ON the annual awards-show gantlet, a question: Given that man has walked on the moon and split the atom, why has no one created an awards format for the 21st century?

The answer, as many reading this prepare for plenty of looooong evenings, is that fixing a backward system is seldom as easy as it looks.

Award telecasts need to work as TV shows, which is how the masses will consume them. At the same time, there’s a strong tendency to play to those inside the room, from insider-ish jokes to “Thanks to my agent and publicist” acceptance speeches.

These forces are at odds, but they’re so ingrained that even the made-for-TV events that sprouted up in the past few years — which theoretically begin with a clean slate — haven’t added much color to a 50-year-old template that could use a little Grecian Formula.

Last week, for example, the Critics’ Choice Awards inaugurated “awards season” by doling out honors on the WB, as bored-looking stars endured the comedy of Dennis Miller. That was followed by the People’s Choice Awards, whose biggest innovation is irksome “Fans’ Favorite” honors sponsored by Clairol and Olay, incorporating commercials into the show itself. Moreover, because top choices are notified in advance and only winners attend, the results were plainly evident during the first 10 minutes whenever the camera panned the audience for a celebrity.

Don Mischer has produced eight Emmy ceremonies as well as the Kennedy Center Honors, and despite that resume, he says there are no simple solutions to the inherent challenges award shows face.

“I’ve tried to do fewer award shows,” says Mischer, whose next assignment is Super Bowl halftime festivities. “They are really no-win situations for producers. Much more can go wrong than go right … (and) if you play everything too safe with what you’re attempting to do comedically, then you have a dull show, and you’ll certainly get nailed by the press and viewers.”

The nagging issue plaguing kudocasts is their backward structure. In order to retain the audience, the biggest awards are saved until the end of the evening. Unfortunately, the heavily produced pieces and clips designed to keep things moving exhaust minutes that become precious when the big guns finally arrive.

“So many times when I did the Emmy Awards I’d get halfway through and think, ‘How did we get here, where I’ve got 22 seconds to let Meryl Streep talk? Something isn’t right,’” Mischer says.

Other than the Oscars, which are allowed to run long, award shows rigidly adhere to their allotted time, with network affiliates sure to howl if they go a minute over.

Longtime Oscar producer Gil Cates has stated that either the award show gods smile on you or they don’t. The dilemma, of course, is that it’s hard to legislate spontaneity, to orchestrate moments that have the ring of authenticity. Producers can’t control the speeches and unscripted moments that yield magic, from Jack Palance’s one-armed pushups to Jamie Foxx’s riff during the Golden Globes.

In addition, pleas for recipients to eschew boring “thank-you” lists invariably go unheeded, despite the fact that 99% of viewers don’t recognize the name of a publicist at PMK/HBH, which to the untrained ear sounds like a human growth hormone.

Building a better mousetrap remains an option, but in the interim, winners can begin by considering all the constituencies they wish to address — starting with the paying customers in the cheap seats.

In that respect, the award show gods really do have a way of smiling on those who help themselves.

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