ANALYSIS: How to Fix Awards Shows. No, It's Not Too Late to Start

5:20 PM PST 03/14/2011 by Tim Goodman
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Emmy, Oscar, Golden Globe and Grammy ceremonies could use major overhauls, writes THR's Tim Goodman, who offers advice to future producers in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If you were in charge of running the Emmys this year, what would you be thinking right about now? Something along the lines of not imploding like the Oscars, perhaps? Granted, the Emmys are a long way away, but the process starts this month. And if you want to avoid the pitfalls of the Oscars and simultaneously work on your own flawed awards show, it’s time to get chopping.

This isn’t a column about looking back so much as looking forward. That damage has been done. And, in some cases, has been done over a lengthy period of time. But the Emmys and the Golden Globes and the Grammys can not only learn from the mistakes of their last shows but can file away some lessons about the Oscars fiasco as well.

The bigger picture here isn’t just how the Academy Awards have devalued themselves while simultaneously enabling the Golden Globes -- or even how the Emmys have a real chance at taking a long needed step forward -- it’s about how awards shows in general are the Achilles heel of the entertainment industry, a stupefying reality if there ever was one.

When your business is entertainment, how is it possible to mess up your biggest night? As you’ll see in the following remedies and suggestions, it’s not just possible but probable. Clinging to the past is no longer an option. And catering to egos isn’t either.

The Academy Awards. Let’s start here because it’s still fresh. Although I outlined some obvious improvement during my review of the latest Oscars – get a real host and trim down all the bloat in the middle sections that put viewers to sleep – changing this show requires a fundamental re-evaluation of how it’s been dones all these years. No, you don’t have to hack it up like the Grammys did (where you don’t even see half the categories), but it’s too big, too sleep-inducing and moldy. So:

  1. Do not ever repeat the hosting mistake you made this year.
  2. You have to fundamentally accept that this is not a private party to fete everyone in film. It’s a television special where most of the viewers (nearly all of them non-industry) don’t share your same need to make sure elements of sound, editing, costume, make-up, etc. are included. It bores them. It makes the show longer. I’m not saying cut those awards but you’ve already relegated the technical awards to the sidelines. Rotate in one or two of those and cycle some of these others into a special night of their own. Make it a random selection each year. But above all, find a way to make it riveting – and snappy when they are included in the main show. Egos may be bruised, but if you make it a special night for a mixture of categories, not just technical awards, the pain is lessened.
  3. If you want to inject more hipness (read: lower the demo) then let pop acts cover the best songs. And Randy Newman is right – find five songs.
  4. Shift the categories around – put bigger awards into the middle of the show. The format needs a revolution.
  5. It’s essential that winners don’t have a laundry list of people to thank. The backstage camera was an excellent idea, but the abuse of rambling on is still epidemic. Again, people can probably tolerate big stars, directors, etc. going on a bit tediously about agents, managers, publicists, etc. – but not so much the rest of the people.  If you must, then threaten to cut people off (and relegate that category to the off night awards) and then really do it. Sweet and succinct should be the model.  And yes, you really can fix this problem. Try harder. Because it’s bad television.
  6. Don’t race through the In Memoriam segment. And do your research so no one is left out. Viewers like this part of the show and believe what you’re currently doing is rude.
  7. Move the awards ceremony up and air before The Golden Globes. What was once a fun party for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has taken on the gravitas of some kind of indicator of how the Oscars – your show -- will be shaped. That lessens your impact. And that needs to end.

The Emmys. See above. Seriously, many of the same problems plague the Emmys, especially middle-bloat and rushed endings. Some of the rubber stamping of past winners has eroded, but the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences needs a better system for ensuring that voters actually watch television and thus know what they’re voting on. Beyond that:

  1. Dismantling the so-called blue ribbon panels wasn’t the greatest idea. But the real flaw is the limited nature of the submissions. How is it fair that actors submit an episode where they ostensibly do their best work, when a cumulative appreciation would more accurately reflect their performances? Yes, watching 22 or 13 episodes is “harder” than watching a two-hour movie. But the alternative seems half-assed and prone to tweaking by an actor’s one great episode. Body of work, people. Body of work. Make the effort.
  2. Your documentary category is a mess. There’s a difference between news “documentaries” and those longer works done by the likes of Ken Burns. “Outstanding informational program – long form.” Now that’s just lame. Fix it.
  3. Study past failures and be better. By that, I mean understand the flaws outlined in No. 1. And never forget this: The Wire was the best television series ever made, and you blew it for five seasons on best series and all the acting categories. You can’t live down that shame. You can only hope to not repeat it.

The Golden Globes: Congratulations, you’re the most enjoyable awards show on the air -- by a wide margin. But here’s your biggest issues:

  1. Nobody takes you seriously. Clean your house, strive for transparency.
  2. Your awards show is a party. If you get pissy about hosts like Ricky Gervais poking fun at everybody, then you’re going to become the Oscars. And you’re not the Oscars. Know you’re niche.
  3. You can become more relevant and important by expanding our television awards. Make them at least equal to film. Take them seriously. And fix the television categories -- for the most part they’re awful.
  4. Keep the vibe light. If you don’t want Gervais back, get Jon Stewart or someone similar. Take a risk, but not one as blatantly stupid as asking two actors to host. Learn from the Oscars.

The Grammys: What are you anymore? You’ve gone all in on the live performances that mix artists together. That’s good. But now it just feels like an all-star concert with a few awards announcements. It’s a hodge-podge mess. Strive for a better mix. Furthermore:

  1. If you’re going to down play categories, at least put some info graphics on the screen. Get creative with graphics. Shake up your format – have someone interesting (not the host) give a rundown of who won what behind the scenes or off-stage. Alleviate the mystery.
  2. You’re trying to be all things to all people and, in music, that might be impossible. Viewers in the middle to upper end of the 18-49 demo often don’t know half the younger artists they’re seeing. The younger demo doesn’t necessarily like or even know about older artists. Make the connections. Let music journalists/critics help you create a great mash-up of generations and influences. Because if a young artists shows respect to an older artist (and vice-versa), the audience at home feels it and opens their minds to the idea of expanding their tastes.
  3. Know your weakness and do something to keep it interesting. That means, when country music stars come on, or rappers are on,  you need to make sure those disparate audiences aren’t tuning out. Maybe do some taped bits on finding some common ground through music (maybe Eminem and Lady Antebellum both like James Brown or something. Maybe Justin Bieber and Esperanza Spalding could have been filmed getting to know one another before the show aired, etc.
  4. Get a host. Christ, your show is random.

This is just a start. I’m not claiming to have all the answers or even one good one. But I do know all four of these major awards shows need fixing – and fast. They all need major fixes. And if none of those fixes, those innovations, those moments of creative brilliance come about to make these shows different from the past, the television audiences will just decline.  This is the heart of the entertainment industry. Get together and get it right.

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