Academy, CBS reverse decision after criticism

Never mind!

In response to pressure from the creative community and a lack of public support from other Big Four nets, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and CBS did an about-face on Wednesday on the plan to “time-shift” the presentation of eight kudos during the Sept. 20 Emmy Awards telecast.

The TV Acad had intended to pre-tape eight award presentations in the hour leading up to the 5 p.m. PT start of the live three-hour telecast and then run clips of those presentations throughout the ceremony. Yet just two weeks after the board overwhelmingly approved the final changes, the TV Acad confirmed that this year’s telecast will include the usual roster of 28 nods presented live.

“This decision was made to mend relationships within the television community and to allow executive producer Don Mischer to focus his full attention on producing the creative elements in the telecast,” said TV Academy chairman-CEO John Shaffner in a statement. “Our goal is to celebrate the year in television, honor excellence and this year’s great achievements with the support of our industry colleagues and our telecast partner, CBS.”

The shift on the time-shifting is the latest flip-flop for this year’s Emmys. In May the kudocast moved its long-skedded telecast date up a week to Sept. 13 after realizing the Emmys would face tough competition from NBC’s Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants football game on Sept. 20. But two weeks later the date shifted back to Sept. 20 after CBS realized that the Emmys would conflict with MTV’s VMA Awards on Sept. 13.

The fight that erupted after the time-shifting decision was announced boiled down to a question of respect for various disciplines — the plan was to drop two awards each from the writing, directing, acting and producing fields — but also a case of critical darlings vs. mainstream hits.

The TV Acad felt pressure to overhaul this year’s kudocast to stem the years-long trend of declining viewership for the Emmy Awards — particularly in the wake of last year’s critically scorched telecast. In announcing the changes last month, Emmycast exec producer Mischer cited TV Acad research that found mainstream viewers skipped the Emmys because they were unfamiliar with some of the top nominees — cable hits like “Dexter,” “Damages” and the reigning drama series champ, “Mad Men.”

The plan with the time-shifted awards was to save 12-15 minutes of telecast time in order to add more entertainment components and devote more time to saluting top TV hits that are not big contenders in the Emmy race. CBS has seen ratings for its annual Grammy Awards telecast and Tonycast rise this year by cutting the number of awards and adding more buzzworthy performance elements.

“The Television Academy’s decision to keep all categories live during the Emmy ceremony this year was made because ultimately it is in the best interest of the show,” Mischer said in a statement. “We had attempted to make room in the show for more live performances, however, our community did not embrace the plan, which is a very important consideration. This decision is also ultimately in the best interest of the entertainment industry, because whether you are an academy member, a nominee, or a viewer at home, it is important for the show that we are all gathered together in the spirit of celebrating excellence.”

CBS and TV Acad execs had hoped the plan to spread the impact around by dropping two kudos from each major discipline would help biz insiders come to grips with the changes.

But the WGA, DGA and SAG came out strongly against the decision — which amounted to shifting half of the eight writing and directing awards that have traditionally been presented on the live Emmycast and disproportionately affected longform programming. A group of more than 150 showrunners and screenwriters last week protested the move, calling it “a symbolic attack on the primacy of writing in our industry.”

HBO, perennial Emmy leader, also criticized the move and questioned whether it was an effort by CBS to downplay the prestige of cable fare in favor of tubthumping for broadcast shows that aren’t even awards contenders.

The guild opposition threatened to have financial consequences for the TV Acad and CBS, as the Emmycast relies on guild waivers in order to run clips of the nommed programs without having to pay fees that could otherwise run as high as $600,000-$800,000.

WGA West prexy Patric Verrone said the outrage over the time-shifting plan comes on the heels of years of decisions by the TV Acad that affect writers, from eligibility decisions to past attempts to limit the number of writer-producers on a show who can be recognized in the top comedy and drama series categories.

“Every year they come up with a new rule that affects writers, and we have to go complain about it,” Verrone told Daily Variety. After this year’s scuffle, Verrone said WGA West reps are determined to work in a more “collaborative way” with the TV Acad board, Verrone said.

It’s understood that Eye execs were most surprised by the lack of public support for the plan from ABC, Fox and NBC. The Big Four jointly share the rights to the Emmy telecast, which rotates annually among the nets. But that rotating system has been one of the reasons why the TV Acad has had a hard time making changes to the telecast, with none of the nets particularly invested in the franchise. By contrast, CBS has long snapped up the rights to the Grammys and Tonys, while ABC has been the TV home of the Oscars for decades.

The Emmycast contract is up after next year’s ceremony, set to air on NBC. After the time-shifting debacle, it’s questionable whether CBS will continue to support the traditional “wheel” contract. The most recent Emmy pact commanded a $52 million rights fee over an eight-year term.

If ratings for this year’s show don’t improve, it’s also questionable whether the other broadcasters will be anxious to renew the Emmycast deal. The TV Acad may find a warmer reception from the cable realm, which would be a historic first for the Emmycast.

As it stands, this year’s Emmys already face a major hurdle if the goal is significantly improving on the 2008 telecast’s 12.3 million viewers as it will go head-to-head in most time zones with NBC’s Cowboys-Giants bout, which should be a major draw for football fans.

CBS reluctantly agreed with the decision to reverse course on the awards as it became clear the uproar over the time-shifting plan was hampering exec producer Mischer’s ability to finalize plans for the telecast. Although there were no overt threats of boycotting the event, there was enough unease and uncertainty in the community, with barely five weeks to go until the live show, to hamper Mischer’s planning. Another factor was likely the comfort level for host Neil Patrick Harris, star of CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.”

Indeed, Mischer wound up as the public face of a controversy that he did not initiate. The TV Acad’s board of governors voted in February to reduce the number of live award presentations, but the changes were not publicly acknowledged until Mischer held a conference call with reporters on July 30, the morning after the board voted to approve the time-shifting option presented by Mischer and CBS specials chief Jack Sussman.

Despite Wednesday’s reversal, not all the controversies surrounding this year’s Emmys are settled. HBO, for one, is said to remain irritated by a late change in the award-selection rules that eliminates any full-time employee of a network from serving on judging panels in a program category where his employer is nominated. With 99 nominations, HBO staffers are excluded from eligibility in all but a few areas.

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