Changes in show made to improve ratings

Is it a case of broadcast vs. cable? Critical darlings vs. crowd pleasers? Is nothing less than the fate of the Emmy Awards’ future TV home hanging in the balance?

The TV Academy’s plan to “time-shift” eight of the 28 award presentations during the live Primetime Emmycast caused a stir in many quarters after it was outlined Thursday ayem by Don Mischer, exec producer of the Sept. 20 show on CBS.

The plan is to pre-tape award presentations in eight categories in the 45 minutes leading up to the 5 p.m. PT start of the live telecast. Vid clips of those presentations, including a listing of nominees in each category, will be interspersed into the live broadcast.

Mischer said the move was an effort to boost ratings for the kudocast by giving more time to highlight mainstream TV hits, big moments in television during the past 12 months and other viewer-friendly elements.

That translates to an immediate tug of war between the cable hits and critical darlings that have dominated the noms in recent years — think “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “30 Rock,” “Dexter” and “Damages” — and the need to deliver strong ratings by highlighting hits like “American Idol,” “CSI” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

“We’re trying to make the Emmys more relevant to mainstream viewers,” Mischer said.

Opponents see it as an effort by the Acad and the Eye network to de-emphasize the prestige factor for cable programs and to use the Emmys as a platform to pump up broadcast fare. It’s no secret that Big Four execs have long grumbled about the Emmys being a “three-hour commercial” for HBO and other kudos-magnet cable shows.

“For a show that has always recognized the best in the television industry, it now seems to be increasingly focused on recognizing broadcast network television,” HBO said in a statement. “That is unfortunate given the range and caliber of talent represented in these categories which are being singled out for time-shifting.”

The details of the Emmy plan emerged on the same day that kudos kingpin HBO held its presentation as part of the summer Television Critics Assn. press tour in Pasadena. When pressed by reporters, HBO programming prexy Michael Lombardo said “we are disappointed.” HBO co-prexy Richard Plepler said they were waiting for more details but the changes are “a little peculiar to us.”

The Acad insisted Thursday that it has not finalized the list of awards that will be bumped to the taped format. Mischer said Emmy rules stipulate that the telecast has to maintain parity among the key branches, which means that the eight affected awards will be comprised of two awards apiece from the writing, directing, performing and producing categories.

Mischer’s comments to reporters came on the heels of a meeting Wednesday night of the TV Acad’s board of governors in which the time-shifting plan was laid out, and ultimately endorsed by more than 40 members of the board.

Four members voted against the shift and at least eight members abstained. The presentation by Mischer and Jack Sussman, CBS’ exec veep of specials, music and live events, include a demo of what the taped segs would look like using footage from last year’s Emmycast. The demo helped sway many board members.

TV Acad chairman John Shaffner was traveling Thursday and could not be reached for comment. Shaffner is slated to appear at TCA on Monday in a session on the Emmys held as part of CBS’ daylong presentation.

Mischer emphasized that the taped segs will not be just split-second clips but will list the nominees in the category, include the live reaction shot of the winner and a “coherent, substantial statement” from the winner on stage.

“We’re not just going to cut to a shot of people standing up there and waving.”

As a multi-Emmy winner himself, Mischer said the plan in the works is a compromise that “I never would have been unhappy with.”

The shifting of the eight awards will save 12-15 minutes of telecast time. Mischer said they are hammering out plans to use that time to feature highlights and notable moments from the past season. They’re also working out plans to add an interactive element to allow viewers to vote on their favorite show. There’s talk about a segment featuring homemade vids from viewers talking about their favorite shows.

Insiders close to the Emmy brouhaha note that CBS and the other Big Four nets have more leverage with the Academy this year considering that the Emmys are heading into the last two years of an eight-year broadcast deal worth $52 million overall. ATAS will have to negotiate a new contract for the kudocast next year, increasing the pressure to improve ratings for this year’s show.

Like most major award shows, viewership of the Primetime Emmy Awards has tumbled in recent years. Last year’s critically panned telecast averaged 12.3 million viewers, down 24% from just two years ago. In adults 18-49, last year’s show pulled a modest 3.8 rating/9 share, down 27% from two years ago.

Mischer said the decision to streamline presentations followed research after last year’s show, which found that viewers were tuning out “because the Emmys featured shows that viewers didn’t know and weren’t interested in,” Mischer said.

Mischer asserted on the call that AMC’s “Mad Men,” last year’s drama series champ, was “my favorite show on television.” But he also noted that “Mad Men” had an average aud of 1.3 million viewers last season, compared with 18 million for CBS’ “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” which is not a big Emmy contender this year. “Mad Men,” on the other hand, has 16 noms and is a player in most top categories.

Mischer further noted that viewership has rebounded in recent years for other kudocasts that have streamlined presentations and focused on aud-pleasing elements. He cited the Grammy Awards and Tony Awards, both of which air on CBS, as examples. The Oscars have announced a streamlining plan to take its honorary award out of next year’s live telecast.

The decision to make this radical shift in the live Emmycast was made by the board in February, before Mischer was tapped to exec produce this year’s show, as he noted on the call. The particulars of which categories would be affected were left to be determined in consultation with Mischer and CBS.

Sources say that at one point the board discussed simply moving all the writing and directing awards out of the main telecast, but that the current compromise spreads the impact around — encompassing two awards each for writing, directing, acting and producing. The affected categories in the producing branch are likely to include the miniseries category, where there are only two nominees this year.

“It’s a sad day for longform suppliers,” said producer Stanley M. Brooks, a nominee in the made-for category for Lifetime telepic “Prayers for Bobby.” “This is clearly a decision driven more by the networks and ratings than the academy’s desire to do what is best for its members.”

Added Kirk Ellis, who won for longform writing last year for HBO mini “John Adams”: “How utterly ironic that an industry lauded as a ‘writers’ medium’ would see fit to lop off half of the writer’s categories from the live broadcast of its annual awards program.”

While made-fors and minis are expected to be disproportionately affected, longform lead acting categories will remain in the telecast, thanks in no small measure to the star power of this year’s nominees, who include Drew Barrymore, Jessica Lange, Kenneth Branagh and Ian McKellen.

One big unanswered question is whether the Emmycast will be able to count on the necessary waivers from the WGA, DGA and SAG to run clips from nommed programs during the telecast without having to pay for them. Those waivers are a tradition for major kudocasts.

There were conflicting interpretations of the language invoked in past waivers. Some said the Emmycast would be within its rights so long as the nominees and winners in the time-shifted categories were included on the telecast. The WGA West, for one, called it “a clear violation of a longstanding agreement,” and “a serious dem
otion for writing and a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of writers in the creation of television programs.”

The WGA, like other critics of the Emmy plan, noted that the bad reaction to last year’s telecast stemmed in part from the decision to use five reality show hosts as emcees .

“Last year’s Emmys suffered a tremendous decline in quality and ratings because of a lack of scripted material,” the WGA West said. “That the Academy would then decide to devalue the primary and seminal role that writing plays in television is ridiculous and self-defeating.”

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