ABC's Emmy Boss Talks Hazmat Suits, Garbage Fires and Potential Oscar Lessons

Rob Mills - Jimmy Kimmel
ABC; Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

The Sept. 20 Primetime Emmys had as much to say about how television is made in 2020 as what series courted the most industry favor.

Admittedly, sweeps for Schitt’s Creek, Succession and Watchmen dominated headlines following Sunday’s show. But the logistics that went into the Jimmy Kimmel-hosted “virtual” telecast emerged as an equally significant takeaway, offering lessons on how future TV events might play out as the world (and producers) continues to adapt to working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ABC Entertainment’s executive in charge of the show, SVP of alternative series, specials and late-night programming Rob Mills, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter on Monday. In addition to confirming that there were indeed dozens of Hazmat suit-clad statuette delivery people roaming Los Angeles during the telecast, he talked about potential Oscar lessons, awards show ratings fatigue and what he wishes viewers had seen more of.

So, how do you feel it went? 

I actually could not have been more pleased with it. There's not one thing that I think I would have changed, and I’m so proud of the team who made it. All of the challenges made them think more creatively and make it a better show — as opposed to one that felt like it was hampered by the state of the world.

Was there anything we didn’t see?

We asked every one of the five or six nominees in every category to be really creative about what they were doing, to think outside the box, but we really focused on the winners more than anyone else. I wish we'd addressed the others more. Alex Borstein set up a bed on the roof of her [home in Barcelona]. I would have loved to have spent more time with that setup. But I don’t even know how we would have handled that. Even with the three-hour running time, we still ran a little over. But everyone was so creative. They should be commended. I just wish we had seen more of them.

The few people in the Staples Center who relocated during the telecast were also quite impressive — though I sense Zendaya was just in a hotel room next door.

That is correct, but that was the beauty of no Emmy traffic. Some years there are basketball games and football games to contend with. There was obviously nothing this year. Jen [Aniston] literally got in, got out and got home.

What was the scariest moment for you? 

Once we knew everyone’s links were working, and Jimmy stood in front of the wall and we had reception, I don’t think there were any real nerves on the feeds. But the only thing we had tested time and again was the box delivered to some of the winners that was remote-controlled. Every time we tested it, it worked. The trophy popped out. But there was a little bit of hesitation, a little hiccup when John Oliver won. It worked, though. Everything felt so in control. And when you have Jimmy Kimmel, you don't really need to worry. If somebody reads the best picture winner wrong, there is nobody better to have in that situation.

No panic when neither Jimmy nor Jennifer’s eyes were making contact with the growing fire?

That worked better than we could possibly have imagined. That’s what Jimmy, in his heart of hearts, was hoping would happen. Nine times of out ten [in rehearsals], the envelope wouldn’t even light on fire. I’d seen Jen getting instructions from the stage manager that she was going to want to burp that thing several times. So, I wasn't nervous. I was delighted.

Was frontloading all of the comedy awards and that streak of Schitt’s Creek wins a move to make the feeds run smoother? 

They’ve been doing that for years, and it’s the one thing I might rethink if I was doing next year’s Emmys — only because we saw some sweeps that were unprecedented. You knew that the winds were blowing in favor of Schitt’s Creek, Succession and Watchmen. But with the amount of utter dominance, which was great to see because they're deserving projects, I think it would have been fun to be able to cut back to that Schitt’s Creek party throughout the night — as opposed to one after the other for 40 minutes straight.

Who was the hardest to get on camera, either logistically or in convincing?

From the minute we reached out, everyone was kind of game. For the ones that didn’t — Meryl Streep, Alan Arkin, Michael Douglas — I’m not sure why they chose not to participate. They probably had other engagements, but everyone else was pretty game. People would literally give their right-arm for Jimmy.  There was never any worry that people wouldn’t show up.

Tell me about the people in the Hazmat suits in LA.

This is one of those things where nobody knows who’s winning other than the accountants. It’s not like, “Ok, you’re going to go to one address and don’t worry about it.” So they were at everyone's location. It was a huge undertaking, but it was really important, with this being the first really big live show, that we go that extra mile. So they did. We had people all over Los Angeles going to the various nominees, even though we really are only going to have one winner.

This is really far in advance, and a lot of variables will likely change, but do you think you could do something like this with the 2021 Oscars?

I will say I got the nicest email from [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences CEO] Dawn Hudson, saying how much she was loving the show. And she's worked with both Jimmy hosting and [Emmy producer] Reggie Hudlin producing the Oscars. I think everyone agrees the Emmys was a success, as far as pulling it off. There's certainly some learning there. I think the benefit of the Oscars is we have time on our side. [The Oscars will be held on April 25, 2021.] From when this started in March until now, look how much we've learned. These Emmys probably wouldn't have been possible to pull off even six weeks ago. Who knows what's going to happen throughout the fall and into the new year, but there are things that we absolutely could pull into the Oscars. I saw more than a few comments that this is how awards shows should be done all the time, which I don't necessarily agree with. You were missing some of the glitz and the red carpet.

Award shows have been wed to the same format for so long.

If you do something once and it works spectacularly, you do it again and it’s diminishing returns. If anything, it's never a bad idea to break things up. These things can live in a vacuum. They have to grow and evolve. This forced us into doing things that have never been done before, and sometimes that’s what you have to do. Now, what else can we look at?

The ratings hitting another low, down to 6.1 million viewers, has got to be a bummer. But it's also not much of a surprise. How are you digesting the declines these shows are seeing?

It’s not just the blanket statement of “everything is down.” We live in a different world where everything is kind of fractionalized and there's something for everyone. We're not in the era when we used to all get together to celebrate the same show that everybody watched. The shows we're celebrating are fantastic, but, you know, Succession is not ER. And Schitt’s Creek is not Friends. I think some of that does correlate. And, look, there was a lot of TV on Sunday night. People were watching basketball and football. Beyond the ratings, it did resonate. Five, ten years from now, what people are going to remember is, “Oh, yeah, that was during the pandemic when Jimmy was there all alone and they lit the envelope on fire.” Somebody like Zendaya, who's only going to get bigger and bigger, you're going to remember when she won that first Emmy. Maybe it's a cop-out to say that the fact that it's the lowest-rated Emmys ever doesn't bother me, but it does feel that we accomplished something that people are going to remember.

A lot of your portfolio is back in production, right? 

We’ve been back for a while. A lot of our game shows have been back. The Bachelorette finished its season. Dancing With the Stars is back. We’ve learned a lot, each week it’s something new, and it makes it easier and I think it makes the shows look more normal. Jimmy is finally back in the auditorium for [Jimmy Kimmel] Live, and we’ve learned how to do that. It’ll be like getting into a warm bath. He's going to start with guests that'll be remote, and then pretty soon you'll see the guests back at the studio with him. I think we're just learning how to do things better and make them look more normal, while still being safe and cognizant.

I’m guessing studio audiences will be the last piece to fall into place there?

That’s right, but we are getting to a place where we can start having the discussion of what that would look like. It is going to take a long time. I don't think there's even necessarily a light at the end of the tunnel yet, but there's certainly room for optimism.

Is it safe to assume you didn’t have as late of a night on Sunday as you have in years past?

The greatest part of everything was being able to be in bed by 9:00 p.m.