Emmys 2013 (and beyond): How do we build a better awards ceremony?
This year, the Emmys will be hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, the go-to host in the second decade of the 21st century. Harris has earned that spot with great performances as host of the Tony Awards in 2009 and from 2011-13, and of the 2009 Emmys. (Seriously: look at this. Again. The number of times until you can rewatch it until you're sick of it is "never".)
But is Harris the magic balm that will miraculously turn this year's Emmys into an entertaining, must-see showcase for the industry? Hardly. For starters, most hosts make their presence felt early then disappear into oblivion by the show's second hour. So even if executive producer Ken Ehrlich and his crew manage to concoct an opening number that exceeds that of Harris' performance earlier this year, that still leaves an achingly long stretch of time in which it will be business as usual. Because let's face it: Even for die-hard television fans, the Emmys themselves can be something of a chore when attention shifts away from the host or the major categories.
PICS: 2013 Primetime Emmy nominees
There's no time to alter what's already in place for this year's awards. But we still think there's time to think outside the box when it comes to future ceremonies. Television has evolved as a medium over the past few decades -- why can't the Emmys evolve as well? The death of any show is predictability, and awards shows excel at being unable to escape from the predetermined formats that have dominated past shows. Our proposal is simple: The best way to honor television is to craft an awards ceremony that rewards the process that goes into making an episode of television. By crafting an awards ceremony that uses real-world, pre-recorded, and pre-produced examples of the steps that go into producing the television we love, the Emmys will do a much better job of honoring the industry as a whole, not simply the single winner in each category.
Anyone reading an article about the Emmys online has at least a rudimentary sense of how the "sausage" is made, especially now that showrunners are as well-known as the actors themselves. But that hard-core fan makes up only a small overall percentage of those tuning in to watch the Emmys. As such, there's a chance to inform, educate, and entertain during this three-and-a-half-hour ceremony. And yes: "informing" and "educating" can indeed lead to "entertaining," provided the instruction is dynamically presented. In fact, if it's done correctly, it will hardly feel didactic at all.
To be fair, trying to lump all the different types of programming up for awards this year would yield a big, huge mess. So let's ease our pain, and increase overall clarification, by creating a narrative throughout the ceremony that takes scripted programming (drama, comedy, miniseries/movie) from its nascent stages through final product. Following those steps inherently creates a natural flow of awards: we start with the scripted pages, give a nod to casting, move into production design/art direction, highlight the directors, look at those responsible for post-production tasks, and finally, honor the actors and shows themselves. With this, we have the spine of the show.
That sounds like a ridiculous amount to get through, but here's where we can save time: the emphasis on future Emmy telecasts lies in getting as much documented time with the talent as possible over the course of the runs of nominated shows. The Emmys don't have to police or enforce this internal coverage: Most shows already have behind-the-scenes crews capturing moments for DVD or promotional material already, so it's mostly about leveraging this content for use the night of the awards.
It's all fine and dandy to put five writers smiling nervously onscreen as someone reads their names off a teleprompter. But we would get to know these people much better by getting a brief insight into how they work, not by how many agents they thank onstage. We hear all the time about how much fun certain writers' rooms are: Why not see for ourselves a brief snippet of how those rooms function? The Emmys award separate cinematography categories for single-cam and multi-cam comedies: Why not have those nominated help educate the audience on how to achieve the best results in both scenarios?
The bottom line is this: A heavy emphasis on pre-production doesn't rob the awards show of its personality, but rather places all those up for awards in the best light possible while deepening the audience's understanding of what each of these artists do. There will always be Emmy viewers that only watch to see their favorite stars in tuxedos and fancy dresses. But those people only enjoy 10 percent of the awards as is. So we can't worry about annoying them with this deep behind-the-scenes dive.
In this fragmented entertainment age, the Emmys are one of the few chances for the television industry to get this many eyeballs on a single product. Celebrating those that are deemed best in many different fields is a fine way to showcase the depth and breadth of the talent currently working in the medium. But creating smarter viewers should be an equal priority, especially given how many in and out of Hollywood bemoan how "quality" rarely translates into high ratings. If mass audiences aren't trained in what decisions help transform a show from merely good to phenomenally great, how can they be expected to separate the wheat from the chaff on their overly packed DVR queues?
By having professionals of different fields either introduce or comment upon fields that are not their expertise, the Emmys could emphasize the intensely collaborative nature of television far better than simply racing through a series of awards and playing off anyone who speaks for longer than 30 seconds. Time spent introducing the nominees would be poured into the pre-produced segments, where we would not only see the nominee's face and name, but watch them perform the craft that earned them the respect of their peers. Rather than simply banish many winners to the Creative Arts Emmy Awards the week before, have them also revealed onstage one by one as a pre-produced segment takes us through the various stages of an episode's production. They still won't get to make a nationally televised speech, but the Emmys will have put a personality onto a no-longer anonymous face.
If the point of these awards were only to celebrate the faces we see on billboards, the Emmys could be a half-hour long. Since the Emmys are not the length of an episode of "Parks and Recreation," it can do much better than it currently does to achieve its nominal goals.
Even while moving to this method, we won't abandon a few core aspects of the Emmys that should remain intact, even if they don't fit well within this proposed structure. The reality categories should not be shuttled off the program, but rather treated as their own discrete subset of programming with its own start-to-finish progression. (Sure, Cat Deeley makes hosting "So You Think You Can Dance" look easy, but what goes into prepping each episode?) Special awards, such as the Governors Award and the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, could stay as stand-alone segments. And naturally, the "In Memoriam" sequence stays as is, since the Emmys are about honoring television's past as well as its future.
The Emmys should exist to stoke interest in television as a medium, and the best way to do that is to highlight the incredible amount of work that goes into producing the entertainment many viewers of this ceremony take for granted. This approach de-emphasizes the winners and losers and refocuses attention on the vast library of shows currently available for consumption. Rather than confirming existing audience interest, the awards should provoke curiosity about shows previously ignored or simply overlooked. Giving an award to an underwatched show is certainly a good way to do that. But revealing the passion that goes into making all shows is a healthier, more sustainable method for converting casual fans into rabid viewers.
As the number of eyeballs on each show dwindles, each pair counts more than ever. If the Emmys helps train those eyes to understand what television has to offer, the medium as a whole will flourish rather than implode in the decade to come.