In the two and a half decades I’ve been covering the Emmy Awards, nothing stands out like what happened to the show in 2001, the year the ceremony almost didn’t happen. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Emmys were postponed twice — the second time on Oct. 7 (with producers already on-site in tuxes!) as the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began just hours before the show was supposed to take place.
When that year’s show finally did happen, in November, it was a slightly stripped-down affair that nevertheless served as a surprisingly unifying moment for the industry. The “semi-Emmys,” as Academy officials called them, took place at the smaller Shubert Theatre (rather than the Shrine Auditorium, as originally planned). Formalwear was replaced with business attire. And instead of various studio and network parties, there was just one: a Unity Dinner, which replaced the normal Governors Ball.
After the second postponement, there was no guarantee that the Emmys would even happen that year. The attacks had left the country on edge — and some industry execs weren’t sure that such an event was appropriate in the wake of what had happened. But there was a counterargument: With the proper tone, a celebration of TV artistry and storytelling could be a welcome diversion from the moment’s grim headlines.
In the end, that second group was right. Host Ellen DeGeneres struck a proper tone by mixing humor with gravitas. After the show, the entire audience stuck around for the dinner — rather than the usual practice of heading off to a panoply of parties. The entertainment industry did indeed feel united that night.
Nearly 20 years later, we find ourselves in another difficult time, one in which there’s a clear and present danger to the usual routine of hundreds gathering together in one place. We’re two months into this new reality, and already the world, the nation and our industry has changed — perhaps irrevocably. And once again, there’s a question of whether it’s appropriate to celebrate or campaign for the Emmys.
It’s clear there’s no traditional idea of “campaigning” for the Emmys this year. That ended the moment stay-at-home orders due to the coronavirus pandemic went into place and FYC events were canceled. Given its somewhat aggressive connotation, I honestly think we might consider retiring the term “campaign,” at least for this year, especially as there are no in-person events anymore.
But that doesn’t mean stars and producers shouldn’t help promote and tout the programs they’re really proud of. If anything, with audiences constantly on the lookout for new fare to cut through the quarantine, now’s the time to give an enthusiastic push to the programs and events that might make staying indoors a bit more enjoyable. We’ve all already binged “Tiger King,” after all, so how about something a little meatier? There’s more quality fare than ever vying for Emmys and audience attention — now’s the time to tout those offerings, not shy away from them.
But there’s still another reason to celebrate TV: the people behind those programs during this era of Peak TV — the talent, writers, directors and craftspeople, above and below the line. Basically, anyone who helps create the programming that is keeping millions of people entertained at home right now during these trying times.
With sets shut down and production halted, most of the set designers, camera operators, hairdressers, lighting technicians, grips and other crew members are all out of work. The Emmys don’t just honor TV stars. They recognize excellence across the industry. And this year, more than ever, the people in those fields could use a boost and some attention.
It’s pretty clear there’s no way this year’s Creative Arts and Primetime Emmy Awards ceremonies will be held as normal. The 2001 semi-Emmys still had some semblance of a traditional telecast, but this year that’s not possible.
This is going to be an unusual, perhaps awkward Emmy season we’re embarking on. Yet if we think of it as more of a celebration of everyone behind the great work that’s entertaining Americans stuck at home and less about the puffery that comes with the usual awards campaigning, then this could actually be the most uplifting moment for the Emmys since that evening way back in November 2001. I’m looking forward to whatever shape the Emmy Awards winds up taking this year — especially if that means I can leave the tux hanging in the closet.
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[Photo: Barbra Streisand leads a tribute to those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, at the 53rd Primetime Emmy Awards in November 2001.]