Variety, Comedy or Music Special Emmy Category Relies on Wow Factor

The Emmy nominees for variety, comedy or music special can seem like a mishmash of shows, with everything from awards shows to comedy specials to concerts and fundraisers in the mix.

Last year, the category’s nominees couldn’t be more disparate: CBS’ “Kennedy Center Honors,” HBO’s “Louis C.K.: Oh My God” and “Mel Brooks Strikes Back!,” NBC’s “Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update Thursday (Part 1)” and “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief,” which aired across select broadcast and cable networks and local TV stations.

The “Kennedy Center Honors” — produced by George Stevens Jr., who founded the event, and son Michael — won for the fifth year in a row, which might have to do with the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard and 42nd Street. The special also salutes showbiz royalty who are effectively getting a lifetime achievement award. Last year’s honorees included jazz legend Herbie Hancock; stage, screen and TV stalwart Shirley MacLaine, and guitar god Carlos Santana.

“I think the Kennedy Center Honors are a really Emmy-voter favorite,” says CBS’ Jack Sussman, executive VP, specials, music and live events. “They love the idea of being in that Inside-the-Beltway world of entertainment for one night. The show is done in a really classy way with top-of-the-line icons telling you stories about people you’ve come to embrace over the years.”

While the Television Academy agrees that the variety special categories are a bit of a catch-all, it handles that by altering the voting slightly for them. Voters rate each show on a one-to-five scale — and are free to give the same score to more than one show — and then add all the scores together. The winner is the show with the highest score, says John Leverence, the Television Academy’s senior VP of awards. While Emmy made changes to several categories this year — most particularly, reality, which added a category — the variety special categories, including writing and directing, are expected to remain the same for the foreseeable future, Leverence says.

While the TV Academy may not shake up the category, programmers might. The variety special seems to be making a bit of a comeback with the popularity of social media and networks’ mandate to get more people in front of the TV while a program is actually airing.

That’s why some of the awards shows — particularly the Grammys, the Oscars and the Golden Globes — have seen increased viewership in recent years. The producers have made it a point to stage elaborate production numbers that draw viewers in and keep them there, or they’ve hired some of the country’s best comic talent, in the case of the Globes with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and let them do their thing. Last January, the Golden Globes hit a 10-year high in total viewers, with nearly 21 million people tuning in.

“Viewers care far more about the unique and amazing live performances than they do about who wins any award,” Sussman says. “That’s why you want to create the greatest spectacles you can create in between the awards.”

For the Grammys, that often means putting together unlikely pairings, such as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong and Miranda Lambert, or getting the remaining Beatles back together just for the show. As for the Tonys, last year saw Neil Patrick Harris leading a cast of literally hundreds in a salute to Broadway.

“The Tony Awards is a wonderfully creative show done with several hundred of the most talented people on the planet,” says Sussman. “You could only do that with several hundred Broadway performers. They are so talented in a way that enables them to pull that off with really less than one full rehearsal. You watch that show and you get to see the best of Broadway in one night.”

In 2013-14, several specials aired that may be worthy of Emmy consideration just by sheer numbers.

Over Thanksgiving, “Garth Brooks: Live From Las Vegas” attracted nearly 9 million people watching on the Friday after Turkey Day to win the night for CBS. In that show, Brooks just sat with his guitar, telling stories and playing songs to a live audience.

“The thing that was most impressive about this performance was that he never lost the sense of intimacy he has with the audience even though he was live on TV,” says Octagon Entertainment m.d. John Ferriter, who has worked with Brooks for years.

And NBC saw nearly 19 million people tune in to watch “The Sound of Music Live!” on Dec. 5, delivering NBC’s biggest Thursday since May 6, 2004, when “Friends” wrapped its run.

In May, NBC aired “The Maya Rudolph Show,” which also turned in respectable ratings, averaging nearly 7 million viewers and a 2.1 rating/6 share among adults 18-49, winning its 10 p.m. time period on May 19.

“People just love an excuse for a party,” says Paul Telegdy, NBC Entertainment’s president of alternative and latenight programming. “When you air special events like this, people say to each other, ‘I’ll bring a bottle of wine and you bring some cookies,’ and then they get together to watch.”

With people wanting to tune in and hang around the virtual water cooler — whether that’s tweeting or hosting Oscar parties on Facebook groups — the live spectacle is back and only getting bigger.

“I think this category is getting tighter and tighter every year,” Sussman says. “You have to make sure you can maintain the high level of quality that your predecessors have put out there. Good versions of all these shows float everybody’s boat. If you are going to get into this game, you have to play at a very high level.”

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