A look at the Emmys and the debates

In a week bookended by the Emmys and a presidential debate, a look back at one and forward to the other…

Before the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and networks can fix the Emmy telecast — and based on the email coming in, it’s not just cranky TV critics who were dismayed by the amateurishness displayed Sunday — they need to establish a consensus about priorities.

For starters, commit to the premise that this is — duh — an awards show, and allow those who win to accept their honors with a modicum of dignity, as opposed to racing them on and off as if everybody had hot dates waiting at the HBO party.

Yes, there are 28 categories and the show could do with fewer of them. In a perfect world, that would probably include cutting back on writers and directors, who are unrecognizable to most viewers, from claiming their awards on air. That proposal has been nixed in the past, since the Academy must keep the guilds happy in order to get waivers for all those clips.

Barring such dispensation, though, there’s still roughly 130 minutes of program content within a three-hour presentation. That ought to be enough time to devote a couple minutes to each category, let the presenters model what they’re wearing and enliven things with judiciously selected comedy bits, tributes and production numbers.

Arguing otherwise is a complete crock.

Part II of the priorities discussion involves either unabashedly embracing reality TV or, better yet, accepting that the genre is a second-class citizen in a ceremony devoted to TV’s finest, despite impressive ratings for its top entries.

As one producer noted amid the Monday-morning quarterbacking (and notably, he’s not some embittered writer but hails from the talk realm), “Just because people watch reality TV doesn’t mean an award show honoring creative excellence in TV needs to abdicate its responsibility. More people watch porn movies than Hollywood DVDs, but the Oscars doesn’t have Jenna Jameson as the host or opening act.”

GIVE THE NETWORKS a pass for being eager to showcase categories that heighten their dwindling chances of winning something, especially since they’ve bailed out of the TV movie business. But if the awards are bastardized simply because cable puts on better dramas right now, maybe it’s time to punt on the four-network broadcast wheel and be done with it.

The academy board will meet next month, and let’s hope the sting of those scorching reviews hasn’t faded entirely.

The one thing they shouldn’t worry about is ratings. With a production this unflattering, the lower the better. Job one should be settling on goals to improve the show. And if the parties aren’t prepared to take the necessary measures to ensure the Emmy stands for applauding quality, at that point feel free to cue the porn star.

* * *

SINCE THE TWO PARTIES unofficially determined their presidential standard-bearers months ago, I’ve been telling anybody who would listen that age could ultimately be as significant a factor as race in this election. Beginning with Friday’s debate, we’re going to find out.

John McCain and Barack Obama will fling charges and statistics at each other regarding the issues. Yet while pundits will analyze who scored points in terms of substance, pay special attention to the visuals.

The debates will be instrumental in swaying the crucial portion of the population that remains undecided. Based on the stark policy contrasts between the candidates, people who haven’t made a decision yet don’t seem prone to be won over strictly by who outlines the most comprehensive healthcare plan or best approach to deploying troops abroad.

Rather, those who have paid little attention thus far are likely to be unduly influenced by images and style. For some, that will favor McCain (older white men boast an uninterrupted winning streak in presidential contests), but Obama possesses every advantage by conventional TV standards — not just 25 years younger than his rival, but half a head taller.

Ever since Kennedy-Nixon, debates have swung heavily on such trivial matters. While the 72-year-old Republican has exhibited senior moments on the campaign trail, the debate spotlight will be considerably less forgiving if McCain fumbles for facts or confuses the location of Iraq’s border. So for all the talk about valuing experience, as viewed by the audience that truly matters, he might wish he had a bit less of it.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more