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Why try to fix the Emmycast? It's not broken!

August 15, 2009 | 12:45 pm

What was most fascinating to me as an awards-watcher viewing the recent flapdoodle over "time-shifting" at the Emmys was the universal acceptance of two faulty assumptions: that the telecast needs fixing and the way to do that is to cut out the number of awards presented in order to add more "entertainment."

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Entertainment sections were the most widely ridiculed aspects of recent Oscars (Hugh Jackman's song and dance, which I thought was socko, but, OK, maybe that's just me) and the last Emmys (inane banter among the five TV reality hosts). Why boot out eight award categories to make more room for that?

And why make the faulty assumption that viewers don't want to see lots of award presentations on an award show? Emmycast producer CBS, TV journalists and bloggers and even TV academy chiefs all embraced that idea automatically and never bothered to question an assumption that's not only wrong, wrong, wrong — but ridiculous.

The two most successful award shows on TV have very little "entertainment" and bestow prizes in more than two dozen categories, marathon style, just like the Emmys: the Oscars and Golden Globes. In fact, the Globe telecast never has any entertainment segments — it doesn't even have a host — it's wall-to-wall award presentations and TV viewers adore it.

The traditional format of the Emmy show has often scored high TV ratings and raves from TV critics over past decades. Many of those shows were staged by this year's producer, Don Mischer. Why force Mischer to tinker with a format he's proven to be a master of many times?

The top priority of the Emmycast must always be to stage a ceremony that salutes the best of TV in the best possible way. Period. Emmy leaders made several shocking mistakes during the recent "time-shift" hubbub:

1.) Shamelessly schemed to reduce attention to worthy winners in eight categories so that attention can be drawn to high-rated TV shows not even nominated. That's a blatant betrayal of the reason the Emmys exist.

2.) Failed to consult the writers', directors' and actors' guilds before announcing the plan to screw them over, then, once the plan was unveiled, shrugged off the guilds' outcries by telling members of the Television Critics Assn. that the Emmycast will proceed by paying license fees to air TV clips if the unions refuse to grant their usual waivers. The arrogance and insensitivity shown by TV academy chiefs were brazen displays of scary Hollywood ego.

3.) Pandering to broadcast TV networks that pay $7 million per year to telecast the Emmys, but win fewer and fewer awards when competing against edgy small cable networks such as AMC ("Mad Men," "Breaking Bad").

Next year the "wheel deal" will finally end after NBC airs the Emmycast. At that point, TV academy leaders must set a fair price to air the show — $7 million or $8 million, whatever — and invite all major networks, both cable and broadcast, to participate in a new wheel deal, regardless of how TV ratings may drop as a result. Worry over ratings is what was behind this year's "time-shift" fiasco. Forget that. Move on.

Even at their worst, the Emmys have always delivered high TV viewership compared with how programs usually fare in those time slots. Yes, the numbers have dipped in recent years, but they'll certainly jump this Sept. 20 because CBS has the highest Nielsens nowadays. Look at the list below and how the number spiked in 2005 when the eye web last had the telecast.

1999 — 17.5 million viewers — (Fox) (hosted by Jenna Elfman and David Hyde Pierce)
2000 — 21.8 million — (ABC) (Garry Shandling)
2001 — 17.1 million — (CBS) (Ellen DeGeneres)
2002 — 20.0 million — (NBC) (Conan O'Brien)
2003 — 17.9 million — (Fox) (Mulitple hosts)
2004 — 13.8 million — (ABC) (Garry Shandling)
2005 — 18.7 million — (CBS) (Ellen DeGeneres)
2006 — 16.2 million — (NBC) (Conan O'Brien)
2007 — 13.0 million — (Fox) (Ryan Seacrest)
2008 — 12.3 million — (ABC) (Tom Bergeron, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Jeff Probst, Ryan Seacrest)

Even if the Emmycast dips to 8 or 9 million in the future, it doesn't matter. The Emmys exist to reward brave, low-rated networks such as AMC that refused to buckle to ratings pressure while championing gritty shows such as "Breaking Bad" that will never get a wide audience. "Breaking Bad" won an Emmy for Bryan Cranston as best drama actor last year, and the victory was widely hailed across Hollywood as an example of how the Emmys are finally getting things right.

Now the Emmys must refuse to buckle to similar pressure. Failure to do so resulted in a humiliating and well-deserved slap from the TV industry this year. Let's hope Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' chiefs learned their lesson and lead the way, bravely, ahead. Showbiz awards are bestowed by academies so that idealism should triumph in the end, providing the ultimate happy Hollywood ending.

Photo: Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

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