27 Weeks To Oscar: The Trouble With Award Shows (Emmy Edition)
Once again, after a forgettable evening of "thank you"s and whining by the permanently aggrieved, Hollywood's media tries to figure out what went wrong with an awards show.
Ans here is my obnoxious, but accurate, answer.
Nothing went wrong.
Everyone did their part. The Emmys have kept expanding to, now, 117 awarded categories so that records can be set on the regular. The talent showed up in their best borrowed outfits. Netflix filled the void in a season without ongoing series and will likely dominate next year's Emmys, like Succession, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Barry, and Euphoria, as well as shows (including their own) that ended, like Ozark, VEEP, and Schitt's Creek.
In the six Lead Acting categories, there were twelve Black nominees. In Supporting, 11. (I am avoiding "People of Color," since the only color other than White that is well represented at Emmys is Black... Hispanic/Latino/Latinx and Asians are still getting table scraps, from the industry and thus, from the Emmys.)
CBS picked one its stars, who is a stand-up, to host... because the hosting gig is no longer attractive to anyone. Cedric The Entertainer makes at least $4 million a year making The Neighborhood. He can't really say no to CBS. Everyone else can. Especially when these gigs are seen as a career drain.
This Emmy show was the show that was utterly expected. Give or take an unwatchable comedy segment. Pick the winners you like and mourn the winners that didn't get statues. Kick along at a leisurely pace. Are the bad ratings in yet? (Eight million or so is that answer. Up from the low... still horrible.)
Matthew Belloni, formerly editor of the glossy ass-kisser The Hollywood Reporter (which is a direct financial participant in the awards business), took a moment away from gazing at himself in his meticulously washed knife at The Grill to spitball with his movie friends a half-dozen really stupid ideas for changing The Oscars drastically, as one can only do without giving it any real thought. As with most stupid ideas, there is now language that suggests that anyone who sees how dumb the ideas are is a Luddite, desperately clinging to the past... because the next idea is always the best idea. But, of course, these ideas also could be applied to Emmy.
Such gems as "change the seating" to make it more like the Golden Globes... which get worse ratings than Oscar. (He even cites the Critics Choice Awards, which have an on again-off again relationship with live airing, like the Independent Spirit Awards.)
Or "Just give out six awards." Genius! Build a three-hour live show around six awards. Like the Grammys! Except TV and movies are not live-event experiences. They are filmed. And again... the Grammys ratings, after jumping for a few years when they went to the all-concert version, are back in the toilet.
"Show Exclusive Content" is another doozy... because the reason for awards shows is to trick audiences into watching by running long, free commercials for The Batman and Top Gun: Gunnier that will then appear on YouTube within the hour?
I won't even bother addressing "Hire a TV producer" or "Tell the Producer to Entertain the Audience" because they are so insulting and so ignorant of the existing reality, there is no point. Most of the detailed suggestions (movie reunions) have been done. But this is the kind of bad thinking that helps explain why these shows don't improve.
The first rule of marketing is to know what you are marketing. It doesn't matter whether the actual product matches the marketing you have chosen. Before you go to the public, you have to be prepared to explain to them why they want to invest in your product, with time or money or whatever. There will be some backlash for lying, if you do, but the first wave of eyeballs must come -- in most cases -- or you'll never dig out.
So. welcome to 2021. How do you built excitement for a TV show or movie? And not just passive interest. You need to get people focused and taking action when your show airs live.
Immediacy - We now have an on-demand media environment. People time shift a lot. Enormous prices are put on live sports because they are one of the few programming options that offers an almost-absolute demand of immediacy. People time-shift games by a few hours, but not by days or weeks (except for the hardcore).
There is this ongoing argument in Oscar circles that there isn't enough time between the end of the year and the awards. Some of the same people argue that shorter theatrical windows are a smart idea. Make up your minds, folks. The Queen's Gambit launched eleven months ago. The Crown Season 4 (which won last night) launched ten months ago. Season One of Ted Lasso launched more than a year ago.
Who, besides the hardcore, the industry, and people who don't know how to use their remotes and are still on CBS because CBS Sunday Morning did a look at Mayberry, is watching THAT? Three great year-old shows.
Want a hint at why Mare of Easttown may have won an unexpected (oy... media expectations) number of Emmys? Within days of its finale, the idea that there would be a second season started floating around. How sweet. But it was the only "limited series" talking about Season 2. And you know what won 17 of the 20 Emmys for "Best Show" and "Best Acting"... shows that were continuing. Only two for The Queen's Gambit and one for Hamilton broke that reality. Obviously, exceptions are part of every awards season. But relationships tend to be stronger when they are fresh. Even Schitt's Creek... it won everything for its last season... but that also happened to be when people found the show on Netflix for the first time.
Is it a coincidence that Ted Lasso launched in the heat of August's Emmy season, even if it meant having a Christmas episode in September? It is not.
Tension - The stakes of awards shows have simply become too low. Everyone has their favorites, but in the end, the significance of winning an Emmy - or an Oscar, for that matter - has become negligible.
You can't outlaw punditry and the reality, pundits are now part of the Awards Industrial Complex, which so processes and pre-vets the shows that will be a part of these shows, anyone paying attention is 80% of the way to knowing what and who will win.
Emmy nominations were announced on July 13 this year. What did July 13 feel like? A few weeks before that, the Champlain Towers in Surfside, Florida had collapsed. Allan Weisselberg had just been indicted. Democrats in the Texas State House left the state to slow the new, restrictive voting law. Andrew Cuomo was still Governor of NY. Suicide Squad was ramping up for release. Gunpowder Milkshake was coming out on Netflix. Loki was having its finale on Disney+.
So tell me... does any of that seem fresh and compelling this lovely September 20?
Brevity - This is the impossible ask. And it doesn't mean 2 hours instead of 3 hours. It means 2 minutes. This is the Netflix lesson. 2 minutes. The measure of participation in a program. The rise (on paper) of male premature ejaculation into the equal of a fully experienced female orgasm.
This is what no award show can or ever will be able to offer. The time it takes for talent to walk from their seat/table to start their speech is longer than the average person will wait for a web page to load before clicking away in frustration.
The "Just Dump The Small Awards" Fallacy is a perennial. And I understand the draw. But you have to think past the initial instinct. People need to turn on the show to turn the show off. Do we really think that audiences are turning Emmy or Oscar off halfway through the show because they can't stand the 8 minutes that was just used to give out make-up and sound awards?
As I noted, the Grammys show was on the rise for a while, having switched to a format that de-emphasized the award show and took the opportunity to create the world's most unique annual 3-hour concert.
But Grammys viewership peaked in 2012 with 39.91 million viewers. By 2015, they were down to 25 million. And in 2020, it was 18.7 million. (Let's put aside 2021's ugly record low of 8.8 million.)
So forgive me if I don't see how film and television, which are non-live mediums, fill 3 hours with something other than awards at their awards shows... and if they somehow did, could not expect the same downward spiral of the familiar as the Grammys.
Young people can see their pre-vetted by word-of-text best of Grammy moments within hours on YouTube. They don't even need to "tape" the show and sift through it. Seeing it on their phones is enough for most.
Sex Appeal - The history of television reminds us that over the last 4 decades, the word "fuck" and a loose breast or male ass draws a lot of attention. When HBO started seriously building original programming, sex and language were a big part of their push... because broadcast and even "free" cable networks weren't doing that. When Showtime wanted to compete, they went a click raunchier and sexually broader than HBO. Netflix, in its growth, did a much more sophisticated version of this and the sex and murders and teens having sex and doing murders are a big part of their appeal as well (but yes, only one part of it).
At last night's Emmys, Olivia Colman blurting out, "Fuck yeah" about Michaela Coel winning for writing was kept from American viewers and would have turned the knob in a significantly positive way for most critics and, I imagine, the majority of viewers. That is the kind of thing that makes it worth tuning in.
It's worth noting that the YouTube video above, uncut, was put out by the Television Academy, not someone taping off a TV. They know. Over 115k views as I post it.
You certainly don't want to turn Oscar or Emmy into an event where the women are forced to compete for who can have the most sideboob and every winner and presenter feels compelled to rehash George Carlin's 7 Dirty Words. But audiences would have enjoyed Brett Goldstein uncut: “I was very, very specifically told I’m not allowed to swear, so this speech is going to be fucking short. This is the fucking icing on the cake. I’m so sorry, please have me back.”
Welcome to 2021.
Variety - No, not the trade.
One of the more interesting elements of COVID award years has been the remotes from other cities. I think there is something to be mined there.
There is something classic and charming about everyone gathering together and wearing their fanciest clothes and going to the ball. But the only variations on that, so far, have been uptight Oscars and sloppy Golden Globes. There have to be other possible configurations.
And I don't mean poorly produced remote segments from hither and yon, looking like sideline reporters at a football game. Last night's presentation of the The Crown team was quite nicely executed. Let's see more like that... or not like that. The folks making these shows are creative and imaginative.
And to dare to tread on a variation on one of Belloni's ideas... would a couple minutes from the set of the now-shooting Game of Thrones prequel hurt? I don't mean to suggest trying to bait GoT geeks into watching, so much as the experience of variety in the awards show itself. Make the show surprising and, in time, the potential of surprises will make more people feel compelled to watch the show. Not as many as they'd like. But more.
And now, I am playing myself off...
One idea I have floated over the years that I think is looking better and better is the idea of quarterly events for awards groups, making the big show into the annual finale. The detail work on this would be tricky. Do you qualify for a quarter when your show starts in the quarter or ends in another? Some shows still run across at least 3/4 of the year. Etc.
The way things are now, Ted Lasso and The Queen's Gambit and The Crown might all lock down a nomination slot in the same quarter. Great! Leave some room for others to get into the game. Spread those release dates around some. But mostly, grab people's attention when the shows are hot, not a year later, when we are happy to see them honored, but not all that excited, as we have moved on to the dozens of other shows being slung at us monthly.
The summer of Physical and Loki and Betty and Lupin and Sex/Life and White Lotus and Schmigadoon and The Chair and Only Murders in The Building... let's get to it! Let's have that conversation and vote before Succession takes our attention somewhere completely different. And if some get left behind in that haste, they can try again for those last 2 all-year wildcard slots just before nominations are announced.
What's the worst that could happen? It could be confusing and weird competitive stuff could crop up and it could get sloppy.
That, to me, is when it gets interesting.