Tactless Logic: The Emmy Awards Time-Shifting Fiasco

Emmy2009Title

Tactless Logic:

The Emmy Awards Time-Shifting Fiasco

The Academy was so close to getting away with it.

Every year, the Emmys are faced with a mountain of criticism that no other award show really deals with, as the show in and of itself is part of the medium that it judges. While the Oscars or the Grammys are television presentations, the critics who analyze them as award shows are not likely film critics, and lack that personal connection with the material being dealt with. With the Emmys, however, the same television critics who (rightfully) criticize the Emmys for failing to recognize certain performers or certain shows for various reasons are the same ones who watch and criticize the show itself, making it a darn tough job to be in charge of the awards show.

This year, they are in the unenviable decision of having to make dramatic changes after two disastrous experiments: first, FOX confused just about everyone with their “Theater in the Round” setup, and last year ABC allowed the Reality Competition Program hosts to host the event and nearly caused a riot amongst angry critics questioning the lack of humour, chemistry, and just about anything worthwhile. They’re in the position where they needed to make changes, but when critics are always on the lookout for potential concerns they needed to step very carefully.

The changes they came up with, and revealed this week, were changes designed in order to streamline the show, allowing more time to let critic-approved Neil Patrick Harris do his thing, and to clear the way for the show to be more engaging for the audience at home. Their purpose alone, is quite logical: everyone wants a better show, and people acknowledge that there need to be changes for that to happen.

Where the Academy (particularly producer Don Mischer) went wrong, however, is in how they sold these changes, changes that demonstrate a logical understanding of some of the award show’s struggles and yet also a tactless understanding of how critics, the industry and other observers would react to their reasoning. If sold differently, these changes would have remained a sticking point but one that would have been over time forgiven: as it stands, it’s a scandal that isn’t going away anytime soon, and a scandal that’s standing in the way of the Emmys making a much-needed comeback.

For those who don’t know, the plan for the Emmys is to take a selection of categories and pre-tape (or “time-shift”) them, allowing the producers to edit them down to the essentials (a list of nominees, the winning speech) and cut out the parts that take up time (the walking, the preamble, the verbal listing of nominees, and in some instances parts of the speech which are considered “unnecessary”) so as to “streamline” the process. The awards that were being moved were primarily in the Longform categories, meaning all non-acting TV Movie/Miniseries categories, with one notable exception: the Academy would also be relegating the Writing for a Drama Series award to this pre-taped status.

On the surface, I will say this much: cutting the longform categories is actually borderline logical. No, it’s not entirely fair, but the Emmys presents more awards than any other award show, and the Grammys has been doing similar relegation for years, without the same type of pre-taped presence within the show itself (remember, they’re not cutting the awards, just not airing them live). The fact of the matter is that there are fewer TV Movies and Miniseries each year: there are only two nominated miniseries this time around, and HBO’s Grey Gardens is going to sweep every TV Movie category in existence. The competition just isn’t there to make these categories feel as important as they may have once been when there were more networks producing these longer formats, and efforts to streamline seem to be quite logical in their focus on these areas.

However, this wasn’t the logic that was presented by the Academy. Instead, they were honest in that these changes were being done because HBO tends to dominate these categories, and that they believe the Emmys as an awards show appeals to a broader audience than that which watches prestige projects on the cable network. It’s at this point that the wheels start to go off the rails: it’s one thing to streamline based on television trends and questions of competition, but popularity is a variable that doesn’t feel at home in what is supposed to be an objective awards show. Yes, people were probably tired of seeing John Adams walk all over the Emmys last year, but isn’t the whole point of the Emmys (at some level) to expose a broader viewership to projects of high quality they may not have seen?

I would tend to argue that, if they had simply cut the Miniseries categories, this would have remained a fairly isolated incident: HBO would have been frustrated, and I’m sure there would have been some controversy, but for the most part it would considered a somewhat tactless but ultimately logical move to streamline the show by isolating the least competitive categories. However, the decision to cut the Writing for a Drama Series award took this scenario from a logical if tactless decision to an outright war against television writers.

There is nothing about the elimination of the Drama Series writing category that can be spun in any other way: it is an outright attack on the low-rated Mad Men, which has four of the nominations in the category and is likely to win. Forget the fact that the show is up for three acting awards and Outstanding Drama Series, and won the trophy last year: this is a category most likely won by a “niche cable show,” and as a result it was lumped in with the longform categories. It was at this point that controversy erupted: what was once an attempt to streamline an awards show was now unquestionably an attack on the apparent lack of “popularity” of certain show, shows that the Academy’s voting body has clearly deemed worthy of the honour and that both the industry and critics are quite fond of.

What I find fascinating about this whole scenario is that this has become an issue of equality the likes of which seems kind of surreal when you consider that it is a question of when the awards are TAPED rather than if they’ll air at all. I honestly don’t think that the actual format changes are even the issue anymore, replaced by a sense that the Academy is making those format changes with “Is the show popular with mass audiences?” as their most important consideration. I believe they would have faced similar concerns had they only downgraded the longform categories, as the writers and directors and producers of those programs would still be deemed “less worthy” than the actors in the same movies and miniseries, who help bring in ratings with their “celebrity” and the like. However, I believe those concerns could have been smoothed over with an understanding of how the streamlining would maintain their presence in the show itself, whereas this brouhaha has gone beyond the point of clarification smoothing things over.

I had the pleasure of communicating with Felicia Day, writer/creator/star of The Guild and most famous recently for her parts in the projects of Joss Whedon (Dr. Horrible, Dollhouse) over Twitter about her efforts earlier today at getting an “EmmysFail” hashtag into the social network’s trending topics. She cited, most directly, the recent letter from the Writers’ Guild of America, where numerous showrunners (from not only affected shows, but pretty much every show you could imagine) speaking out against the changes, in her effort to launch the campaign. It was ultimately successful: the hashtag was picked up by many, including fellow actors, and hit the trending topics this afternoon.

I asked her a question, though, about whether or not she sees this as an issue with the writing awards (the group most commonly listed as the most slighted of the groups, based on the Drama category) or in general, and she responded with the following:

All of them should be broadcast live. I wish that my OWN union, SAG. had a protest letter I could link to like WGA & DGA.

And here we have the ultimate evidence that this issue has spiraled out of the Academy’s control: this has become a question of solidarity, wherein the industry is banding together against this practice. Forget that the Grammys do the same thing even more harshly (for types of music just as valid as others, just far less popular, and without seeing the speeches or the nominees), the selection process is so frought with tactless references to skewed perceptions of television quality and craftsmanship that it has become an issue that goes beyond the actual changes to the very essence of the Academy itself. The reason SAG doesn’t have a protest letter is unclear, since the Supporting Acting Movie/Miniseries categories were amongst those time-shifted, but Day’s involvement indicates that actors are willing to fight for their writers and directors who are the “victims” of not streamlining for change, but a calculated attack on programming (and individual contributors to that programming) not considered popular enough to walk all the way to the stage during the three-hour telecast.

I don’t blame Day and others for being upset about the changes, which have been couched in terms that the Academy is, I promise you, regretting at this very minute. There’s speculation that the changes are about appealing to the networks, whose contract to air the awards show is up and who are “tired” of HBO, AMC, and other niche cable networks dominating the show and robbing their own shows of the added exposure. However, I think the changes being made (to longform categories) are actually quite logical when viewed in terms of television trends and award show precedent, and if they had only left off the Drama Writing award, and better explained their reasoning beyond the point of “popularity,” this wouldn’t have been the controversy it’s become.

However, in their tactless logic, the Academy has turned a “change for the better” for their beleaguered telecast into a controversy that crosses guilds, genres, networks and social networks. They needed a change, that’s for sure, but I think they got more than they bargained for with this one.

Cultural Observations

  • I know some have been critical of Neil Patrick Harris for defending these changes during his TCA Emmys press conference, but you can’t blame him: he’s an employee like anyone else, and the changes would actually help him to get more time to do his thing and entertain viewers. It’s a tough position to put an actor in, and I don’t think he should be deemed unsympathetic to the cause as a result of his efforts to clear the air – plus, as James Hibberd notes above, he was far more diplomatic about the whole thing.
  • Full disclosure: my only real anger over the elimination of the “walking to the podium” section will be if David Simon and Ed Burns win an award. If I don’t get to see them strut to the podium and shove their Emmy(s) in the Academy’s face for shunning The Wire, I’ll be enormously angry.
  • For more on this subject, you can find articles by Diane Kristine Wild and Mo Ryan.
Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Emmy Awards

4 responses to “Tactless Logic: The Emmy Awards Time-Shifting Fiasco

  1. Great post. I think it’s the drama writing award that’s really the sticking point for most of us outside observers, but two of the time shifted awards are for performing (though I’ve never heard which categories). So SAG should have a stake in this too.

    The Directors Guild has taken a hardline stance on their own behalf, not in solidarity with the writers, but the writers are getting more publicity because showrunners are writers. It’s like the Oscars downgrading the best director award. The WGA and DGA are saying the Academy is breaching their agreement to air their awards live, and DGA is threatening to break their part of the agreement (waiving fees for clips). Imagine if the Guilds did band together – including SAG – the Academy would be on its knees.

    I don’t blame Neil Patrick Harris either – he wasn’t nearly as offensive as Mischer at the TCA – but he is credited as a producer on the Emmys, not just host. That’s probably customary, but it gives him more of a responsibility than hired hand, too.

    • Thanks for the kind words, and you’re right – the Supporting Acting Movie/Miniseries races are amongst the time-shifted awards (piece has been edited to reflect this).

      As for NPH, you’re right that he’s named as a producer, but I certainly feel as if he’s trapped in a decision that was in the works LONG before he arrived, so to hold him any sense of responsibility for these concerns seems ill founded (although, as you say, he wasn’t offensive in his comments per se).

  2. Are we sure that this decision to time shift categories was made by the Emmy people and not CBS?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s