Why the Oscars and Emmys Shouldn’t Try to Be the Grammys

Presidents Day weekend saw two telecasts that had something in common: the Grammy Awards and the NBA All-Star Game, each featuring triumphant moments in shows where winning has become secondary to spectacle.

Among major award programs, the Grammys have thus managed to accomplish what their brethren have flirted with, but not fully embraced: making the actual honors — whittled down to roughly a dozen during the main telecast — less significant than the overall presentation. In many ways, the music industry’s biggest night has turned itself into the anti-awards show awards show, defined not by those who claim the trophies as much as by those who sang, provoked and wore what with whom.

From that perspective, the Grammys offer a taste of what the Oscars and Emmys can learn, but really shouldn’t emulate, about mounting a telecast that services TV’s priorities — reflecting a mentality that believes awards mostly get in the way of delivering a compelling special, particularly to the younger viewers advertisers covet, and whom these programs must therefore labor to reach. Small wonder that most of CBS’ West Coast affiliates didn’t feel obligated until this year (likely due to the immediacy of social media) to broadcast the Grammys live, since any urgency surrounding the show’s outcome generally takes a back seat to the performances.

Through the years, the Emmys and Oscars have implemented multiple changes and experiments to draw those younger viewers, from the former shedding or consolidating categories, to the latter trying (usually fruitlessly) to spruce up technical winners. Nothing really works, though, once someone most of the TV audience doesn’t recognize begins rattling off the requisite thank-you list.

Acknowledging the tension that exists between honoring the industry’s best and putting on the most attractive TV show makes practical sense. But there are limits to how much pandering these telecasts can do without undermining their stated missions — and a conversation on this issue inevitably seems to ensue every time a show’s ratings dip.

“The biggest academy-backed showcases cater to an industry constituency as well as to the networks that carry (and pay for) them and to the audiences at home.”
@blowryontv on Twitter

Different awards programs have grappled with this challenge in disparate ways. The Golden Globes, for example, boasts a roster of actor-heavy categories. Made-for-TV events like MTV’s Video Music Awards can put a thumb on the scale toward outrageousness, since the actual awards are essentially an afterthought.

That’s not the case, however, with the biggest academy-backed showcases, which cater to an industry constituency as well as to the networks that carry (and pay for) them and to the audiences at home. The Oscars and Emmys have long used taped packages and production numbers, often awkwardly, to inject pizzazz into the presentation and celebrate the medium, even if that means hurrying winners through acceptance speeches. But they still each hand out two dozen or so awards, a duty that shouldn’t be taken lightly, inasmuch as these honors are for some recipients the crowning achievement of their careers.

Like the Tonys, the Grammys are blessed with an organic means of incorporating live performances into the broadcast, and other awards shows clearly view that dynamic, as well as music’s disproportionate appeal among younger viewers, with envy. The recording industry has further enabled a performance-based show by handing out the preponderance of its awards off air.

The Oscars, obviously, face other thorny issues, including the renewed debate surrounding diversity (or rather, the lack thereof) in its voting. Strictly in terms of format, however, the other academies should resist the familiar Hollywood pressure to give their telecasts a facelift, even at the risk of looking a little haggard, relatively speaking.

Notably, basketball’s All-Star Game ran up a record number of points, producing a ridiculous final score of 196-173. That provides a sort-of reminder that if entertainment pros want to preserve the basic traditions of their award shows, when faced with the periodic pressure to deliver more highlights, they have to be willing to play a little defense.

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