The last thing anyone wants is for the Emmy tributes to the passing of major names in television to become controversial.
Nevertheless, Primetime Emmys exec producer Ken Ehrlich acknowledged (during a conference call Wednesday) that conflict was fairly inevitable when the decision was made to single out James Gandolfini, Cory Monteith, Jean Stapleton, Jonathan Winters and Gary David Goldberg for special attention — in addition to the traditional In Memoriam segment set to run during Sunday’s kudocast on CBS.
“Honestly, there is no way (to prevent the debate),” Ehrlich said. “It’s so individual – I hate to use the word arbitrary, but there’s only so much you can do. In essence, it’s kind of an extension of the In Memoriam piece we’ve done – inevitably, the next day people say, ‘Why not this one?’ In all candor, this becomes a producers’ option, and in this case we selected these five individuals knowing that there are certain others that could have been treated this way, but in particular we felt these five were the ones we wanted to focus on.
“No matter what we do, there will be people who think we could have done other things. Obviously, we felt there was a limit to the number of people we could do. … There was discussion about the fact that this was probably going to become an interesting topic of conversation. I think at this point we’d just like to stand by what we’re doing.”
Ehrlich did defend the debated inclusion of Monteith, the young “Glee” co-star whose body of work doesn’t match that of the other honorees or others who weren’t singled out, such as Larry Hagman and Jack Klugman.
“It was a rather personal choice,” Ehrlich said. “Cory’s appeal was to maybe a little different generation from some of the others we were honoring, and we felt maybe he needed to be represented. The fact that at 31, he passed away under tragic circumstances, the fact that we felt it was important to be responsive to younger viewers for whom Cory meant as much as these four others meant to their own generations.”
The tributes won’t be the only somber notes to be struck in an Emmycast that Ehrlich maintains will be celebratory in tone overall. There will also be a segment, manned onscreen by Don Cheadle, marking the 50th anniversary of coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy – “the first time a country mourned collectively for the death of a president” via television, Ehrlich said.
That will segue into a look back at the Beatles’ debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 80 days later, on Feb. 9, 1964.
“The Feb. 9 date was to a very real extent was a time we could (first) begin to celebrate,” Ehrlich said. “We could cheer, we could yell, we could scream, we could begin to come back. I was a college student at the time, so I remember it well.”
Former “American Idol” champ Carrie Underwood will perform during the Beatles segment. Ehrlich said “the connection is pretty obvious,” in that television helped make the Beatles, and Carrie Underwood is an example of a star made by television.
Other musical segments in the Emmycast will feature Elton John performing a tribute to Liberace, coordinated with a presentation by “Behind the Candelabra” stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, and a dance number about television featuring Emmy host Neil Patrick Harris that was created by the nominees for the choreography Emmy.
Ehrlich declined to spoil the kickoff number of the kudocast, other than to say that it “will open in a way that is definitely unexpected.”
All the non-award segments obviously add to the challenge of bringing the Emmys home within the three-hour window allotted for the show on CBS, but Ehrlich called himself an optimist on that front.
“There’s honestly only so much you can do,” Ehrlich said. “We have tried things in the past, some of which have been successful, some of which have not been. The key is to try to keep it moving, and you know with Neil he’s going to be trying to keep it moving.”
CBS exec veep of specials and live programming Jack Sussman added that to some extent, the pace of the show is in the hands of the winners and their acceptance speeches.
“We will ask people to be sincere and concise and realize there’s a lot of awards to give out that night,” Sussman said. “We want people to thank the appropriate people and say what’s in their hearts and move on. The longer they go, the less other people might get down the line.”