There’s an urgency surrounding the Primetime Emmy Awards telecast this year that has little to do with whether “Mad Men” defends its title or whether “Flight of the Conchords” pulls off an underdog win in the comedy series heat.
The real drama concerns the Sept. 20 telecast itself. The show is facing the same make-or-break pressures as all ratings-challenged kudofests these days: Evolve or die.
After this year, the Primetime Emmy Awards has one more year on the “wheel deal” that calls for the telecast rights to rotate annually among ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. Without a major improvement in the quality of the show and the quantity of viewers, there’s a good chance the Big Four will stay on the sidelines as the bidding begins by early next year on the next Emmy contract.
As auds tune out of showbiz’s trophy giveaways in greater numbers, the Emmys, Oscars, Grammys and Tonys are working to reinvent themselves, whether with new faces as hosts, leaner presentation lineups or fresh gimmicks. All have been forced to rethink the basic template that has governed televised award shows since the Eisenhower administration.
Now, after Oscar’s makeover managed to move the needle with critics and auds, it’s Emmy’s turn.
Following last year’s disjointed Emmy debacle — there’s no gentle way to put it — when five reality show hosts served as co-hosts, Emmy needs to redeem herself with the viewing public or risk sliding into permanent irrelevancy as far as pop culture — even TV-loving pop culture — is concerned.
The indignity of the Emmycast’s fading light was spotlighted further this year when the date was shuffled twice late in the game to accommodate the network’s football schedule and to avoid conflicting with MTV’s Video Music Awards.
It’s CBS’ turn in the wheelhouse this year, and the Eye and telecast exec producer Don Mischer are determined to make major changes in an effort to restore its credibility as a TV event.
Although Eye execs would not comment on specifics, it’s a given that some of the lower-profile awards that have long been part of the live Emmy telecast will be dropped for the sake of gaining more time for YouTube-worthy performance moments.
“For any awards show, you need to think of presenting it as an event for TV,” says Jack Sussman, CBS’ exec veep of specials, music and live events. “Otherwise a lot of people at home aren’t going to stick around, and they might not care about the awards you’re giving out.”
CBS seems to be onto something. It’s on a roll with its awards telecasts this year, with ratings up year-to-year for February’s Grammycast, April’s Academy of Country Music Awards and last month’s Tony Awards. In each case, the telecasts have followed Sussman’s Law, which stipulates that the dispensing of kudos takes a backseat to razzle-dazzle at the start.
“From 8 to 8:20 we’re going to blow people’s heads off with material that makes the viewer say, ‘I can’t go anywhere, I might miss something,’ ” Sussman says.
It’s also important, in Sussman’s view, to focus on celebrating the best and, yes, most popular of the artform being honored without getting overly concerned about who’s a nominee and who’s not. The Grammy telecast opened with an electrifying perf from U2 of a new tune, “Get On Your Boots.” The Tonycast included musical numbers from “Mamma Mia” and “Legally Blonde: The Musical,” even though they weren’t nominees, purely as crowdpleasers.
“It’s not easy, but you can create events for TV that maintain the credibility of the (TV Academy’s) brand and the integrity of the awards and also drive viewers to the set,” Sussman says.
And, it sounds obvious but it’s not: Televised awards shows have to take the viewing audience into account, and not just stage the show for those in the auditorium.
All the key kudocasts face similar challenges. As TV events, all have had their specialness undercut by the proliferation of other award shows. There are still only a handful where the awards matter because they will endure as a descriptive appendage to the winners’ names (“the Oscar-winning actress,” “the Emmy-winning drama,” etc.). But the fact that you can see Halle Berry and Brad Pitt on Spike TV’s Guy’s Choice Awards makes it that much harder for the “A-list” awards to dazzle.
Moreover, there seems in the past decade a frequent disconnect between kudos contenders and the zeitgeist.
Oscar’s often esoteric best-pic choices in recent years have taken a toll on viewership, just as little-watched TV series contenders, even the critically beloved “Mad Men,” tend to make it harder for Emmy to draw a large crowd. The Tonys always must cope with the fact that their nominees are unseen by 98% of the TV viewing public.
The Emmycast has always presented a unique challenge for producers because it’s harder to “event-ize” TV as a subject. The Grammys and Tonys present a multitude of obvious performance options. And the Oscars are endowed with mega-star power. But even the top honorees on Emmy night are faces that viewers are accustomed to seeing on their home screens.
In the kudocasts’ bid to be an event rather than a litany of handouts and speeches, the key is to keep things moving and keep them entertaining. This means a lot more is resting on the shoulders of the show’s host(s) to keep viewers engaged.
Hugh Jackman gave the Oscarcast a big shot of adrenalin. And CBS was fortunate to have a killer candidate right in its backyard: Neil Patrick Harris, star of the web’s “How I Met Your Mother.”
In the past year, Harris has hosted the World Magic Awards, the non-televised Creative Arts Emmys, the TV Land Awards, the Writers Guild Awards and the Tony Awards. It was the showmanship and the joie de vivre that Harris displayed on the Tonycast — to rave reviews — that sealed CBS’ decision to recruit him for its toughest trophy-night assignment.
Harris was so game for the Tony gig that he persuaded CBS and producers to let him break every rule in the kudocast handbook by closing the long show with a musical number.
The tune was “Tonight” from “West Side Story,” while the lyrics (by “Hairspray” tunesmiths Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) were written on the fly, to reflect the events of the night. In other words, no rehearsals.
“It takes a combination of incredible qualities to do something like that,” Sussman says. “You have to be able to sing and dance at a high level, and then you have to have the mental strength to walk out on the stage and do it for the very first time in front of millions of people.”
In his live blogging of the Tonycast, New York Times theater critic (and Variety vet) Charles Isherwood summed up the reaction of many by saying, “When was the last time you actually wanted to hear more from an awards host?”
Neil Patrick Harris, a nation turns its kudos-weary eyes to you.