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

'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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