Emmys 2018: Special Events Yield New ‘Apples to Apples Competition’ Rules

Live television events, such as award shows or concerts featuring Jennifer Lopez or John Legend ripping up the stage, can make a TV audience feel like they’re sitting in the front row. But are they the same thing as a taped show of a comic standing at the mic? The Emmys don’t think so, which is why they’ve reorganized the previously murky variety special class categories into variety special (live) and variety special (pre-recorded).

“[Now] it’s a more apples-to-apples competition, with live-to-air variety specials in one category and live-to-tape variety specials in another,” says John Leverence, senior vice president of awards at the Television Academy.

With “special class” a loose term, prior years saw a mélange of diverse special events crowded together and competing against each other. But producers who have worked on both types of special programs maintain that nothing rivals the high-stakes of live shows.

“The energy, the spontaneity, when you capture that moment — that translates to viewers at home,” says Bart Stephens, executive producer of “DirecTV Now Super Saturday Night: Jennifer Lopez,” which aired live on AT&T Audience Network. Her pre-Super Bowl concert could have been taped, Stephens acknowledges, but “we feel it is a better presentation live.”

The first new category honors the specialized art form of live television, which includes split-second decision-making by producers and the need to be flexible as the unexpected occurs.

“You can cue a musician, you can’t cue a lioness on the hunt,” says Al Berman, executive producer of National Geographic’s “Earth Live.” “It was the feeling of breaking news … and you don’t know where the information is going to come from next and where the video is going to come from.”

A program like “Earth Live” will compete against standard-bearers such as the Grammys, which Berman acknowledges are “great shows … produced by wonderfully talented people.” But what he thinks sets his apart is that it accomplished something never done before — it broadcast simultaneously from 26 countries on six continents.

Some producers, such as Andrew C. Wilk of PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center,” will hedge bets and submit in both categories. “Falsettos” will vie in the pre-recorded category while his New Year’s Eve special falls under the live section.

“Special class used to be a safe haven for shows that were neither fish nor fowl,” Wilk says. “Then it got flooded with awards shows. How do we compete with the Tonys and the Oscars or the halftime show at the Super Bowl? They ruined the safe haven, and they mucked it up for the shows that were truly special class. This may prove to be better.”

With more clearly defined parameters, executive producers submitting programs in both categories are mostly embracing the revision.

“It is actually a more accurate way to discern and compare,” says Marc Platt, an executive producer of “A Christmas Story Live!” on Fox and “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on NBC. “Perhaps it makes it more competitive, and in that regard it seems apt to me to do that.”

But Ken Ehrlich, longtime executive producer of the Grammys on CBS, who has also produced the Emmys, is less sold on the new rule classification in place this year.

“I have watched the categories at the Emmys proliferate,” Ehrlich says. “They never seem to get it right.”

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