Emmys: An ‘In Memoriam’ Post Mortem — What Went Wrong

Gandolfini Memorial Emmys
Michael Tran/FilmMagic

'Saddest Emmys of all time' couldn't have been the Academy's intention

For all the surprising results at the 2013 Primetime Emmy Awards, it appears their lasting legacy will be, as “Modern Family” exec producer Steve Levitan said, “the saddest Emmys of all time.”

As much as we cherish the memory of the departed stars, I can’t imagine that signature line was the producers’ intention.

The fact that sorrow and even anger overshadowed the separate tributes to James Gandolfini, Gary David Goldberg, Jean Stapleton, Jonathan Winters and, most controversially, Cory Monteith, was the product of several miscalculations, and as gloomy as the subject might be, it’s worth analyzing where things went wrong.

1) The downside of advance notice

The uncomfortable, often nasty and therefore decidedly unfortunate angst centered on the special tributes would have been avoided had the Academy and CBS chosen not to publicize them beforehand. And the only reason to publicize them is for precisely the reason many people objected to Monteith’s inclusion: as a barely disguised attempt to boost the Emmycast’s ratings. There’s absolutely no other incentive.

Arguably, it was “Mission Accomplished.” Sunday’s kudocast drew 17.6 million viewers, the ceremony’s highest total in eight years. It didn’t hurt the audience totals that CBS, with an NFL lead-in, was broadcasting, but odds are more people tuned in on the promise of the Monteith tribute than tuned out.

Though ratings (and the revenue they generate) are the reason behind virtually any program, let alone the Emmys, trading on the untimely death of a star is a crass way to get there. And as sincere as Ken Ehrlich no doubt was about the meaning Monteith had to his fans, I don’t see how you can argue that his death wasn’t being used as a ratings draw.

Had the tributes gone exactly the same way as they did Sunday, but without advance publicity, people would still have debated Monteith’s inclusion. But the motives would have been much harder to question, and the aftertaste wouldn’t have been nearly as unpleasant.

2) The capricious cutoff

The Academy was simply asking for trouble by giving extra attention to Monteith and not Larry Hagman and Jack Klugman. Yes, you could argue that it’s not clear where you draw the line. Do you stop after Klugman while eschewing names like Charles Durning, Annette Funicello or Bonnie Franklin? Maybe, maybe not.

What is clear is where you don’t draw the line. You don’t draw it where it leaves out two actors who were major TV stars across the decades. Frankly, though Monteith became a target, I’m not sure you include Winters in a special Emmy memory before Hagman and Klugman, and I say that as a big fan of Winters and someone who didn’t watch “Dallas.”

Given the show that we saw, which featured no small amount of bloat or ill-executed numbers (If “Emmy Gold Dancers” were going to work, even ironically, it needed some kind of added twist), and given that the average length of the special tributes was about 60 seconds, it’s just hard to make the case that Ehrlich and Co.  couldn’t find the time for Hagman and Klugman. Heck, even if those tributes caused the show to run an extra two minutes over, that’s not what people would have complained about. There is zero justification for their omission.

In particular, based on how important Hagman was to CBS, thanks to “Dallas,” his exclusion really is inexplicable. More than one person has wondered whether Winters’ link to Robin Williams, whose new CBS series debuts this week, was the reason that Winters got the nod.

Man, this is just an ugly conversation.

3) The stymieing timing

When I first heard about the special tributes, for some reason I had it in my head that they would all come at once. I didn’t figure that they would be sprinkled throughout the ceremony. And I certainly didn’t imagine that they would essentially become the show’s act breaks, each one leading into a commercial and ensuring that nearly every pause to breathe for the show would be a depressing one.

There’s something actually kind of worthy about turning one of Hollywood’s celebratory nights into an evening of remembrance and contemplation — a reminder in essence to hug your loved ones — but it’s hard to fathom that was the goal. In any case, the price you pay for that kind of timing is a somber ceremony, one that makes the broad attempts at music and comedy all the more jarring.

4) The more, the unmerrier

OK, so you’re going the extra mile to remember five of those who have left us. Maybe then, a good idea would be to put the brakes on other major homages to the departed.

The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is noteworthy — an occasion that is sure to be revisited over and over again between now and Nov. 22. You can understand the Academy’s desire to put its own stamp on that milestone, but by the time it aired in the Emmycast, the maudlin quality overwhelmed any potential insight, perspective or catharsis.

The segue into the Beatles and Carrie Underwood singing “Yesterday” didn’t exactly help.

In short, the Academy probably should have made a choice between the Kennedy moment and the special tributes. Doing it all bent the Emmys into something they weren’t really equipped to be.

5) The second-class citizens

Although this was hardly the first time one or more departed stars have been singled out by an awards show, all the attention to the five definitely had the impact of making the traditional “In Memoriam” segment seem like a consolation prize.

It also made the insult to those who were left off entirely — Elmore Leonard, anyone? — seem even greater.

As recently as the Creative Arts Emmys ceremony on Sept. 15, the TV Academy avoided these problems, by presenting its roll call of names to remember, then quietly following this with an unpromoted tribute to soundmaster Ray Dolby. The result was exactly what you would hope for — Dolby got extra attention as a pioneer, but without overshadowing the others in the process.

It will be interesting to see how the memorials at this year’s Emmys affect next year’s. You can imagine that the clamoring for special tributes for certain members of TV royalty will begin long before Emmy week arrives (in August, on NBC).

The best that we can hope for, as always, is for a year that brings us as few people, famous or anonymous, passing away as possible.

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  1. John Cowlen says:

    To Hell with Elmore Leonard! The REAL tragedy here is the unforgivable omission of Lumpy from Leave it to Beaver!!! lol

  2. azindn says:

    The entire show seemed to be a thinly disguised promotional ramp up to the new season. Every presenter or award recipient used the time to drop a hint that their new season or show would be starting almost after the last Emmy was announced. It was quite obvious. As for memorials, using the dead to promo an award show is a low, low tactic that is scumbag worthy.

  3. Dear Jon Weisman, I enjoy your writings, but I must say that you elevated yourself above the rest of writing crowd with this piece ( except for my friend Scott Foundas) . Are you expecting retaliations ? Pierre Edelman

  4. Sari says:

    As a fellow entertainment journalist, I too was disappointed at the miscalculations in the ‘In Memoriam’ segment at the Emmys.

    Giving extra attention to Corey Monteith, who died of a drug overdose was poor judgment to say the least. Men like Larry Hagman and Jack Klugman, television icons, who both endured throat cancer and dear Annette Funicello, a woman who was on the original Mickey Mouse Club, made young men yearn to date her in her movies with Frankie Avalon in the 60s and endured MS, should have also had some special nods but received none.

    As a journalist, I believe these grievous errors set a bad example, highlighting the senseless death of a young man by a drug overdose when television idols, like Funicello, who shaped television into what is today were slighted. Without her success on a show like the Mickey Mouse Club, Glee might never have existed and Monteith might not have even have had a career.

  5. MartyR says:

    This memorium was obviously put together by someone on the production team who didn’t have the cultural context or maturity to remember back before they were born.

    Larry Hagman was from a showbiz family (Broadway’s great Mary Martin being his mother, for one) and his career spanned years before “Dallas”. “I Dream of Jeannie” was among the great set of boomer-generation shows (“Bewitched”, “That Girl”, “The Farmer’s Daughter”, etc) that engaged the audience in an on-going rom-com/sitcom story arc. You had to keep tuning in to see if the characters were going to connect.

    Jack Klugman was an Actor’s Studio graduate with numerous Broadway credits and was a television pioneer performing in some of the most notable tv series of the period before ever landing on “The Odd Couple.”

    Annette Funicello had a short television career, but was a pioneer nonetheless, being perhaps the first tv personality playing a character to develop a fan following so big that the likes of Cory Montieth would have been jealous.

    To leave out these people and many others and to extend the maudlin memorials of the folks they did choose to include was a mistake.

  6. Julia says:

    Well written article. Couldn’t agree more.

  7. bs’d
    What about Andy Griffin?

  8. EK says:

    The fact is that, once people are singled out for special consideration, there will always be debate as to the selections, who wasn’t selected, and so on. It is a no win situation better not created in the first place. The necrology roll is quite sufficient. If any special accolades beyond that are deemed appropriate then a special award could be created but lifting a few noteworthy people from an already acknowledged list is a just looking for trouble and serves no one.

  9. Jimmy Palumbo says:

    And no mention of Henry Polic II….

  10. Andrew Kole says:

    I don’t know where or when award shows went to hell – but this show will surely be on the top of the pile. It seems to me the train went off the track when those in charge forgot that entertainment is what it should be about NOT the “tribute” the producers tried to pull off. If they want to find the way back next year LIMIT the show to 2 Hours so creative hats will be forced to be put on and entertainment will reign supreme once again

    • MBK says:

      The special tributes at the 2013 Emmys were a creative blunder that deadened the show with an overdose of maudlin moments. These and other tributes would have been a perfect opportunity for groundbreaking “second screen” content, where the memories and meditations on mortality could have been a value-added viewers’ choice, rather than force-fed dollops of downers.

      The ceremony was generally rife with creative misfires: (1) A lame opening segment which struggled in vain to overcome its lack of genuine humor with a gaggle of star power, until Kevin Spacey came to the rescue (unfortunately too late); (2) The downbeat dirge by Elton John that squandered the opportunity to celebrate Liberace’s exuberant showmanship; (3) The JFK assassination/Beatles segment which devolved into a downbeat history lesson with an uninspired, by-the-numbers rendition of “Yesterday” by Carrie Underwood as its funereal coda (when Paul McCartney was actually in town); (4) The cheesy Emmy Gold Dancers number which was so bereft of relevance that it had to lampoon itself and flat-lined in the process, woefully under-exploiting the talents of Neil Patrick (as did the whole program); (5) The deer-in-the-headlights, waste-of-time backstage throws by Shemar Moore, just one of far too many self-serving CBS promotional ploys.

      Thanks to the academy for providing most of the show’s best moments with surprising dark horse selections for the awards. Also kudos to Merritt Wever, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Jeff Daniels, Michael Douglas, and on-the-money Steven Soderbergh for injecting life into an otherwise lackluster string of boring, business-as-usual acceptance speeches. And thumbs up for the choreography segment, which could have done without the “reality” set-up, but delivered innovative entertainment value once the dancing began.

      Despite the ratings success, the show’s producers should not be patting themselves on the back. It wasn’t just the special tributes that made this the saddest Emmy Awards ever. Creatively, the whole show was a tragedy.

  11. Claire says:

    Something notable missing from this article is a mention of the way Variety itself played in blowing up this controversy with Andrew Wallenstein’s article last week.

    Mr. Wallenstein’s approach was to create a unilateral argument suggesting that including Monteith robbed a more “deserving” television personality of a place in the special tribute sections; his article set the tone for most of the controversy that followed.

    He did not look at a wider picture, venturing to question, for instance, why it was that the program wasn’t including six tributes, or seven, or more.

    Instead, he launched immediately into his own personal evaluation of who was “worthy” and not worthy to be included, criticizing the show for being “ill-considered” in “elevating” someone to be noticed in a “sacred” setting, a tone that persisted throughout the entire article and that was crystalized in Variety’s headline choice asking if Monteith “deserve[d] a special Emmy memorial.”

    Mr. Wallenstein suggested that including Monteith would someone diminish the stature of Stapleton, Gandolfini, Winters, and Goldberg by association. He focused his argument on the exclusion of Larry Hagman (who I believe, certainly, should have been given a special memorial tribute as well), neglecting to engage the question of how including Hagman instead of Monteith would still have left many other industry greats, including as Jack Klugman, Roger Ebert, Annette Funicello, and more, out of the segment as well.

    Mr. Wallenstein certainly had a right to express his opinion, and his opinion carried far, igniting the discussion that followed as other articles reported on this opinion piece. In the interests of accurate and fair commentary, however, Variety should have included itself as a significant player in the “downside of advance notice” in which your organization played a prominent role.

    • Jon Weisman says:

      The question Wallenstein raised was a logical one, and though he might have been the first to do it, it’s not as if it wouldn’t have been raised by numerous other organizations if he hadn’t done it. A simple look at how strong the reaction was to the news throughout the TV community shows that.

      The Academy’s plan was designed to draw attention, and the controversy was an inevitable result. By Ken Ehrlich’s own admission, he knew this would happen.

      I have not hidden the fact that we have covered this story, nor would it occur to me to hide it. There are links throughout my story to previous articles by Variety, and following those links will take you back to Wallenstein’s piece.

      • Claire says:

        I agree it is likely someone else would have raised the question. Would they have raised it in the same way, using all of the same highly moralistic language? Maybe; maybe not. To say others would have done it and done it in the same way is an assumption; possibly correct, but still an assumption.

        While you link to many other articles in which Variety covered the Emmys and the tribute section, you did not link to Mr. Wallenstein’s article, nor did you say that Variety, through his article, was part of — in fact, helped to precipitate — the creation of the “uncomfortable, often nasty and therefore decidedly unfortunate angst centered on the special tributes” that left an “unpleasant aftertaste.”

        I think you make many very strong points in your coverage of the Emmy’s program, and many are points I agree with. I do believe, however, that specifically labeling a segment about the “downside of advance notice” and talking about how “Monteith became a target” without acknowledging the fact that Variety played a role in painting that target on him feels like less that complete commentary.

        I do appreciate your taking the time to respond to my comment above, and I appreciate the thought that went into analyzing the show and what could be done better next time.

  12. K. D. says:

    The really weird thing was the inclusion of NFL Films’ Steve Sabol, who died a week or two before LAST YEAR’S EMMYS. If anyone deserved a tribute, who absolutely revolutionized an entire genre of programming, it was Steve Sabol. I was horrified there was not even a mention last year, and totally blindsided he was included this year. Some real course corrections are needed by either the ATAS and/or whatever network is airing it, if not influencing the content.

  13. Beth Grant says:

    Excellent, thoughtfully written review by someone who cares. I say more TV clips for memorials, nominees, and salutes to TV. Less dancing, live show numbers to leave time for heartfelt, surprising speeches. That’s why I watch award shows – for inspiration and to experience humanity! Will they remember to thank their spouse, cry, say something eloquent or hilarious? We hope to see the people behind the images — all dressed up, looking great — a comminity in celebration. Wonderful! Thank you for writing this. YOU inspired me!

  14. Arnie Tracey says:

    Life Goes On—
    Wait a second ! . . . Scratch that ! . . . Make it : Death Goes On !

  15. I can’t wait to see a Khardashian tribute..Hairy, Fat, Ugly Girl(s) dupe networks, and people, and earn millions…That’s a sitcom, in itself…

  16. Just announce names, show faces, and clips if available, and don’t cut away, to show singers, or anything else, so we can see the faces, and clilps, and whatever time it takes, that’s what it is..

    It’s something you must include..People look forward to that part of the show, to see for one last time, an actor they admired be recognized, and at least hear their name on TV for one more time…You schedule the rest of the show, cut whatever, and don’t give anyone any more, or less time.(In the “In Memoriam” segment)

    .It’s not fair to the departed, the grieving, or the fans.

    Save the tributes, for a “Special” or something..God knows, we need some kind of decent programming..

    The formula for the memoriam, should be that simple.

  17. Cee_Man says:

    Seriously guys, it’s an awards show.

    And for TV at that.

    To be a real “controversy” this would have to be about something that matters such as gun control, world hunger or global warming.

    Outside the bubble of the entertainment “press” and network marketing departments no one in the real world gives this stuff a second thought. Or a crap, for that matter.

  18. Kile Ozier says:

    This is what happens when MBA’s infiltrate an industry such as Entertainment. While show business IS the business of Show; most MBA’s have virtually NO sense of the abstract, the intangible, STORYTELLING. With them, it’s all business; numbers, matrices, data and, when unleashed, we get what we saw, last night…

  19. Paul Cuneo says:

    Now let’s see, my understanding is that Variety “files” its articles under certain tags, so that more people searching for those key words and phrases are sure to find the articles, thereby helping Variety make more money off the ads that accompany the articles. Oh…and wait…I see that either Mr. Weisman or Variety was sure to file this under “Cory Monteith” and “Emmy Awards.” Looks like not even they can keep from capitalizing on his untimely death and tribute. Truly a pathetic irony that undermined every point made in the article.

    • Jon Weisman says:

      Monteith, Gandolfini and Hagman struck me as the three most prominent names in the story. Which tags would you suggest?

  20. Stefan says:

    Well said in your article. From the beginning of this years Emmys, all I kept noticing was the outright pimping of CBS shows.. how sad.

  21. Julie Harris had a long and varied television career that went from Hallmark Hall of Fame Classics to Westerns to Night Time Soaps. She won two Emmys and had several other nominations. She deserved a special tribute as well.

  22. Connie Colvin says:

    I thought the tributes were great and there should be more. I am annoyed that Michael O’ Hare of Babylon 5 was not mentioned. I think the look back of tv news and events was great. Give people something to consider, the impact of TV. And given the negative nature of some of the programs these days, like Breaking Bad, I would rather be sad about real people then the heroes they make out of negative characters.

  23. JC Adams says:

    Producers could also make the decision to mute the sound of applause from the auditorium so as to avoid inevitable, awkward “popularity contest” over which deceased star provoked the loudest response. It’s baffling and disrespectful that this doesn’t happen.

  24. Bahia Wilson says:

    In the future this program should always be lively and acknowledge all departed Stars at once. Everyone made their own special contribution in the television industry. To single a few out for special recognition was very uncomfortable viewing for me.

  25. Nanny Mo says:

    This should have read “saddest Emmy’s to date.” I am fully confident that next years Emmy’s could be just as poorly thought out. Then again, there’s always someone who hates everything. It’s just a show and all actors end up in the graveyard sooner or later. Move forward.

  26. Robyn Flans says:

    Those who were left out entirely…Ed Shaughnessy, whose iconic downbeat lead the way into Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show for 30 years…shameful.

  27. Jon – Amen, amen, amen! Your analysis nailed some of the major problems with last night’s dreary broadcast and what I was feeling while watching the broadcast. Looking back on it with the benefit of hindsight, I give all the more credit to Steve Levitan for brilliantly summarizing it with that biting comment even as he had his hands full accepting an award and all the nerves and pressure that goes into acceptance speeches. The only thing I’d add is that when you wrote “capricious cutoff” I thought you were referring to the annoying and often very loud music that came on two minutes (or less) into the acceptance speeches. It’s one thing to do that for minor awards, but it’s downright disrespectful to do that to the major award recipients. And it removed the fun of hearing something spontaneous in an otherwise canned evening.

  28. Stacia says:

    I think this was a great summary. I also believe the inclusion of certain people in the memoriam and during the tributes probably has more to do with who is involved in the process. Let’s say for instance a celebrity who had worked with Hagman really wanted him to be included in the Emmy tributes and they wanted to personally say it, well then it would be more likely to happen. I think a young death is often more of a shock so that is probably why he was included even though his career was nothing compared to Hagman. My vote would be for Annette to be included too! She was one of the original Mickey Mouse club members and a teen idol long before Montieth.

  29. Anne McNeff says:

    Will Farrell was the highlight of the evening……Show was a downer,,,too much sadness, and Corey Monteith just another drug addict,,,,,sad….Too much tech…..was disappointed.

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