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Big Four Networks Press for Emmy Telecast Format Changes as Condition of New Rights Deal

As the announcement of the 2018 Emmy Award nominations loom next week, the Television Academy is finalizing an eight-year deal with the Big Four networks for rights to the annual Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony.

The big hurdle that remains is not financial but the insistence by ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox that they gain more flexibility with the three-hour telecast, and that likely means shifting some of lower-profile awards out of the live ceremony. This is always a touchy subject for any major awards telecast because the various constituencies of the creative community have traditionally balked at moves that would appear to diminish the contributions of writers, directors and others in such categories as limited series, made-for-TV movies, variety-talk and variety-comedy.

Executives with the TV Academy, networks and others are just starting the outreach to discuss options for the telecast with representatives from the DGA, WGA, and SAG-AFTRA. The guilds have some sway over the process because they traditionally grant residual waivers for clips shown during the ceremony. Without those waivers, the cost of producing the Emmy telecast would grow dramatically.

Well-placed sources close to the situation expressed optimism that a compromise will be reached before the Sept. 17 telecast, which is the last one covered by the previous eight-year rights deal. Sources stressed that the diplomatic effort of engaging the guilds is still in its early stages.

One scenario that is likely under consideration as an alternative to the status quo is the system CBS has developed for the Tony Awards.

At the Tonys, some awards are handed out during an hourlong ceremony prior to the start of the live telecast. Some kudos are also presented during commercial breaks. This allows telecast producers to show brief clips of the winners accepting their awards as part of the live telecast, but the clip format saves the time required for winners to walk from the audience to the stage and make acceptance remarks live.

Sources close to the situation stressed that the focus is on how to produce a more entertaining program that engages viewers across the country. The Emmy Awards, like the Oscars and other major kudocasts, has seen steady declines in viewership in recent years. At a time when TV viewership is only growing, the TV Academy’s goal is to find ways to make the telecast more compelling while still recognizing TV’s best and brightest.

At present the TV Academy hands out 26 awards during the live ceremony. Sources stressed the networks are not looking to drill down on a specific number of awards. Rather, they are hoping for flexibility to shift categories around depending on the plans of the telecast producer. This year’s show, carried by NBC, will be spearheaded by Lorne Michaels and be a showcase for “Saturday Night Live” stars, including hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che.

While the subject of reinventing the awards show format has been the subject of industry chatter for years, the issue of moving awards off of the live telecast is fraught with potential for opposition. In 2009, the TV Academy and then-Emmy telecast exec producer Don Mischer sought to make similar changes that were ultimately blocked by opposition from the industry, notably from the WGA. Reps for the WGA could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Television Academy is repped in the rights dealmaking process by powerhouse attorney Ken Ziffren of Ziffren Brittenham. The TV Academy and Ziffren declined to comment.

Financial terms of the eight-year deal are said to have already been hammered out. The Big Four networks have agreed to continue with the wheel format that sees the Emmys rotate among them each year. The annual license fee is said to be around $10 million — not much of an increase from the last deal. But unlike the Oscars and Grammys, the presenting network covers production and most of the marketing costs for the Emmy telecast, which adds at least another $10 million to the commitment.

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