The people who run the Emmy Awards have learned an important lesson: if you’re going to do something for crass commercial reasons, don’t admit it. The U.S. Academy of Television Arts and Sciences announced recently that when the annual TV-industry awards are presented on Sept. 20, several major prizes would be pre-taped; only clips of the acceptance speeches would be shown on the live broadcast. In itself, this strategy might have produced only some angry grumbles. But Emmy producer Don Mischer made the mistake of telling the Television Critics’ Association why these moments were pulled from the main show: they honour “shows that mainstream viewers did not know and were not interested in.” There were so many angry responses, and so much bad publicity, that the Academy had to reverse itself and agree to show all the awards on the live broadcast as usual. But at least the people who run the Academy have made their preferences known: since industry professionals vote to nominate unpopular shows, the Emmys will try ignore them and focus on something else.
The awards that would have been removed from prime time were all dominated by little-watched cable shows that Mischer called “niche shows.” The prizes for TV movies and miniseries are dominated by HBO productions, like last year’s big winner John Adams, so these awards have been “time-shifted.” The broadcast also planned to cut the award for best writing in a drama, a category dominated by AMC’s Mad Men, but keep the full presentation of the prize for comedy writing, presumably because the likely winner is NBC’s 30 Rock. The time that would normally be used for the writers of Mad Men or the producers of Generation Kill would have been used for clips of popular but non-nominated network shows like American Idol. Like the Oscars, which expanded the Best Picture category to 10 films in hopes of getting some actual hits nominated, the Emmys are desperate to get some mainstream entertainment into the mix.
What Mischer and Academy president John Shaffner may not have anticipated is that they would offend everyone in Hollywood, including those whose shows are not affected by the time-shifting. Writers saw the decision on drama writing as a snub against, as writer Ken Levine put it (at kenlevine.blogspot.com), “the only winners who can really put three sentences together.” Many showrunners signed a petition protesting the removal of these awards, while the directors’ and writers’ unions warned that they might retaliate by refusing to allow TV clips to be used on the show for free. Even Angela Bromstad, the new head of NBC, took the writers’ side (“this is a writers’ medium,” she told critics), thereby potentially encouraging disgruntled writers to take their ideas to her struggling network. A decision that was supposed to make the Emmys more popular has made them unpopular across the board.
The irony here is that Mischer may have raised a legitimate point, but for different reasons than he thinks. In recent years it has sometimes seemed that bad cable shows get preference over good network productions.This year, Damages and Dexter both got Best Drama nominations, despite disappointing seasons; and though network sitcoms with live audiences are making a creative comeback, shows like The Big Bang Theory got left out of the Best Comedy category to make room for weak years from Entourage and Flight of the Conchords.
There have been signs of resurgence in network shows and stagnation in cable, especially on HBO. But in demanding that the Emmys honour popular shows for their own sake—not because they’re good, but simply because they’re familiar—Mischer may have set back his own cause by suggesting a sort of affirmative action for mainstream television. NCIS or Bones are both arguably better shows than Dexter at this point, but no one is going to nominate them just because it helps the Emmy ratings.
The final irony is that this might not even have helped the ratings. Last year’s Emmys tried a similar experiment by hiring reality TV stars to host, and the result was one of the lowest-rated Emmys ever. And this year’s awards might have gone even worse if Hollywood had turned against the show altogether; producers were unable to stop the anger, even though host Neil Patrick Harris insisted the plan is merely to “edit down the standing and the hugging.” They had to reverse themselves to save the show.
Fortunately, there’s a solution on the horizon: when TV critic Alan Sepinwall asked Mischer whether all the awards might someday be time-shifted and edited, he was told “that might be the way of the future.” If that happens, no one will be able to complain that popular and unpopular shows aren’t being treated equally. M