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High-flying fete aims higher

Grammy Awards 2013

Sunday’s Grammy Awards kudocast from Staples Center is in the enviable position of having to top itself.

Last year’s CBS show commanded the evening and won the week for the Eye, drawing 39.9 million viewers — the second largest audience in Grammys history, after 43.9 million viewers in 1984, the year of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” triumph. The 2012 Grammys showing witnessed the biggest score in the 18-49 demo since 1990.

“Last year was historic,” Recording Academy president Neil Portnow says. “It was also the first time we eclipsed the Academy Awards (39.3 million). We actually beat them. We were very proud and feeling very good about that. … After last year, it’s going to be tough to stay flat or beat that kind of a historic moment, although that is certainly our goal.”

Portnow adds, “We’ve a phenomenal job of building the Grammy brand … I think we have clearly become the brand that represents excellence in music. The general public gets that now, especially at a time when music is so available from so many sources in so many ways. I think people rely on us to make a judgment, because it is a peer award, after all.”

Some of that brand-building has come courtesy of TV partner CBS, whose most recent 10-year contract with the Academy allows for broadcast offerings from the organization beyond its annual awards show. In addition to the yearly nominations special “Countdown to Music’s Biggest Night,” 2012 saw the NARAS-produced Whitney Houston tribute “We Will Always Love You.”

Houston’s death on the evening before the Grammys not only lifted ratings for last year’s telecast, but also turned production of the show upside-down. Saturday night’s one-hour CBS special “The Grammys Will Go On: A Death in the Family” will take a backstage look at such last-minute developments at the 2012 show as Jennifer Hudson’s tribute to Houston, LL Cool J’s dramatic opening prayer and another 11th-hour addition, Paul McCartney’s show-closing all-star jam.

Portnow says, “This is the most complex, complicated show on live television, bar none, especially because you have more than 20 music performances on five stages. What happened last year, with Whitney passing literally 24 hours before show time — (it’s like,) what do you need to do to steer an ocean liner? That’s what this documentary reveals — it takes a look at all the dynamics of what happened.”

The bulk of this year’s Grammy winners will remain unseen on CBS — most of the awards will be handed out at an afternoon pre-telecast ceremony — but the field is growing again. Two years ago, NARAS slashed the number of categories from 109 to 78. For 2013, the categories inched up to 81, and the Latin jazz album category — whose elimination prompted a class-action lawsuit, later dismissed — has been reinstated.

“Every year we’re going to look at these things,” Portnow says. “We found that in a few cases, some categories deserved to perhaps come back, and then some categories deserved to be merged again. Some categories deserved to be newly created. That’s the process that happens every year.”

One development that created an outcry among some Grammy watchers was the nomination in the past two years of virtually unknown performers — Americana singer-songwriter Linda Chorney and dance artist Al Walser — who secured their slots by lobbying voters on the Academy’s own website, Grammy365. Portnow — who says those nominees did not break any existing rules — indicates some changes will be forthcoming as a result.

“As with any new initiative, and in somewhat of a Wild West fashion, we’ve learned a lot over the past years,” he says. “(The site) is going to be relaunched in the spring or early summer with a new name, lots of good changes, and this concern will be addressed.”

Industry pundits have noted that overall, the Grammy nominations are witnessing something of a sea change, with younger acts like Fun, Frank Ocean, Mumford & Sons, the Black Keys and Gotye dominating 2013’s top categories. NARAS itself appears to be experiencing a youth movement: Some 4,500 of its 20,000 members (only about 12,000 of whom are voting members) have been recruited through its Grammy University Network.

Portnow says of this year’s awards talent pool: “(They’re) earning the respect of our voting members obviously, but at the same time are having commercial success. You have a lot of them popping through and doing well, which is exactly what you hope will happen in any industry. Otherwise you become a lot of graybeards.”

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