Emmy Awards controversial but exciting
Following the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, the Emmy Awards show was postponed and rescheduled twice before the relatively somber ceremony finally took place.
Five years later, there are some folks who think the 58th annual Emmys should have been rescheduled, and the opening segment cancelled altogether. And there was also controversy over the awards themselves. As a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, as a judge for the awards and as someone who attended the festivities, I was a witness to both the pomp and the process.
The first firestorm erupted when media critics accused rank and file Academy members of not taking the awards seriously. Some industry insiders claimed that most of the 13,000 membership had not watched the programs and performances for which they were voting.
Instead of making informed decisions, many members were said to have simply checked off the most familiar names. That, according to some journalists, explained why Ellen Burstyn garnered a supporting actress nomination for her 14-second cameo in the TV movie Mrs. Harris.
No one can be sure, but my guess is that the critics are at least partially correct. For my part, I did take the process seriously. If I was unfamiliar with entries in a particular category (such as children’s programming) I left that space blank, rather than voting for a program I had only heard about, but had never seen.
Voting members were allowed to select their top 10 choices in each category, then a blue ribbon panel came up with the final five nominees for Drama, Comedy, Actor, etc.’….
Judges such as myself then went to work screening DVDs of nominees, and subsequently voted on who should win the Emmys. I think the judges did a pretty good job but, in any event, we cannot be blamed for the nominees provided to us, and that brings us to the second controversy.
Fans of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” took particular exception to the voting process which left both of the popular shows without so much as a nomination. ABC showed its disdain by coincidentally scheduling the blockbuster film Pirates of the Caribbean opposite the Emmy telecast, thus diluting the Award ceremony’s audience. No one at ABC will admit to any foul play, but it has always been an unwritten rule that networks do not competitively program against a fellow network that is honoring our industry.
And speaking of network sabotage, NBC shot itself in the foot by forcing the Academy to present the Emmys two weeks early so as not to interrupt the Peacock’s new “Sunday Night Football” contract. Again, this created two problems: First, ratings are lower in August than in September, particularly the week leading up to Labor Day. Second, it was hot as Hades on the red carpet. My wife Pam and I were among the formally attired attendees who, along with celebrities, were forced to snake our way through long lines and several security checks before being allowed into the Shrine Auditorium, which wasn’t exactly a comfort zone itself.
Not surprisingly, the ratings for this year’s event slipped by 15 percent, but no one can prove if the decline was due to the time of the month, or because of Johnny Depp’s pirate antics over at ABC.
But the red carpet wasn’t the only thing that heated up on Emmy night.
Journalists and viewers alike scolded NBC for airing Conan O’Brien’s comedic pre-taped segment that began with him crashing in a jet and being stranded on the same island with the cast from “Lost.” Earlier that same day a jetliner crashed in Kentucky, killing all but one lone survivor. The offended parties wanted NBC to pull the segment, but instead had to settle for an apology by the network the next day.
In the end, critics of the judging controversy had to eat a bit of crow when the miniseries “Elizabeth I,” and the TV movie Girl in the CafÃ© both raked in multiple awards, proving that some of us were, in fact, paying attention to the screening process, and gave a nod to two quality productions that each merited recognition.
Afterward at the Governors’ Ball, I spoke with “Elizabeth”‘s Helen Mirren, along with Oscar winners Donald Sutherland and Jon Voight. All three agreed that the judging was fair and balanced, and that the British victories proved it.
Of course, there are always critics who say the Emmys are boring and run too long.
But even with stirring tributes to Dick Clark and Aaron Spelling, the telecast came in on time and, for the record, I wouldn’t have missed the special tributes for anything, the latter of which included a rare reunion of Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith.
I had interviewed Spelling for volume two of TV Creators, and I found him to be a warm and unassuming man.’ I was moved by speeches from Stephen Collins (“7th Heaven”), Joan Collins (“Dynasty”) and Jaclyn Smith (“Charlie’s Angels”), and we talked about Aaron during the Governors’ Ball.
By the way, the ball, unlike the telecast, was not controversial. It provided celebrities with an escape from reporters, paparazzi and pundits, and offered a perfect forum for celebration as well as in-depth conversations. Warren Beatty and Annette Benning held court in one corner and I spoke with them about the real-life Dr. Herman Tarnower on whose murder the TV film Mrs. Harris was based, and for which Ms Benning was nominated.
My wife Pam suggested to three-time Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) that his alter ego spend an episode going to a Southern flea market, but “The Dead Zone”‘s Anthony Michael Hall told us that putting Adrian Monk in a germ filled flea market would take up an entire season.
And speaking of the South, Kyra Sedgwick and her executive producer Greer Shepherd spoke with us about how “The Closer” celebrates strong Southern women.
I had a chance to talk with Emmy winner Mariska Hargitay and her “Law & Order SVU” partner Chris Meloni about our friend Dick Wolf who created the “Law & Order” franchise, and later Blythe Danner’ and I discussed the influence that her late husband Bruce Paltrow had on today’s television creators. Danner, the mother of Gwenyth Paltrow, won an Emmy for her supporting role in “Huff.”
All in all, the evening was a great celebration of great television. “24” won for best drama and Keifer Sutherland finally picked up his first Emmy (at the Governors Ball Dad Donald beamed when he proudly showed me the formerly sealed Best Actor card which Keifer gave him as a memento of the evening). And “The Office” proved that an offbeat comedy could be successful on two continents. Still, there was room for improvement.
Years ago in my first volume of TV Creators I suggested that the Academy create sub-headings for drama and comedy to allow for a more fair nominating process.’ For example, I think there should be awards given for Best Science Fiction Drama, Best Family Drama, Best Police/Crime Drama, and so on. This would guarantee that Academy members could compare apples to apples, rather than pitting a show like “Lost” against “Grey’s Anatomy,” when all they have in common is their running time. Expanding the categories would also generate more awards and more excitement. And, in order to maintain tradition, you could still have a Blue Ribbon Panel award Best Overall Drama (and Comedy) at the end of the evening.
The Academy should also never again allow any network to hold its ceremony hostage by demanding a summer air date. In fact, I believe that a deal could be made in which the Emmy would be simulcast by all major networks, with each sharing equally in the long-term commercial revenues. It is a far-fetched concept, but certainly achievable if the right person makes the right kind of approach to the network brass.
But whether it’s sub-categories or simulcasts, the Academy must answer its critics who say the Emmys have become irrelevant. We must take steps to engage viewers year-round and create a mystique about the winged statue that her motion picture counterpart has enjoyed for so many years. Walk into any gift shop in Los Angeles or Orlando, and you can purchase toy Oscar statues that say “Best Mom” or Best Grandmother,” but Emmy replicas are nowhere to be found. Tune into any number of cable channels and watch behind-the-scenes documentaries of various big screen films, but no such recognition exists for TV shows unless you purchase a DVD. The Academy might even consider creating an Emmy channel in which past awards programs can air, as well as archival interviews with TV legends, and “making of” documentaries for shows past and present. So what if such presentations might help promote DVD sales for the studios and networks, it’s still the kind of synergy we need to start making the Academy matter to the masses. And for God’s sake, we must stop honoring reality programs at the prime time Emmy show. If we must recognize these trashy time fillers, then do it at a separate ceremony instead of denigrating real creative television professionals by honoring people who encourage contestants to eat worms and kill wild boar.
The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is supposed to represent excellence in the creative art of broadcasting, but that doesn’t mean we can’t expand that mission to create more awareness and appreciation of our industry. The Board of Governors has a golden opportunity to make sweeping changes, but time is running out. If they are unwilling to think outside the box, then we need a board who will. Conan O’Brien joked that this year’s Emmy telecast will be the last. Truth is, if changes aren’t made, then the time is coming when a single, three-hour ceremony won’t be enough to sustain the Academy.’ And when that happens, then the world’s most powerful medium will have lost its only conduit for meaningful recognition.