Everything to Expect from the Most Unpredictable Emmy Telecast Ever 

Jimmy Kimmel
Jeff Lipsky/ABC

For once, the question of who will win might be the least pressing concern heading into the Emmys. It’s the telecast, a virtual affair hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, that’s stirring the most speculation.

Other awards shows planned for 2020, the most heinous of years, have either been canceled or pretaped on account of the COVID-19 pandemic making traditional production impossible. But ABC and the Television Academy didn’t just stick to their previously announced Sept. 20 date for the small screen’s biggest kudos. Like former TV personality and six-time sexual harassment lawsuit settler Bill O'Reilly, the Primetime Emmy Telecast is doing it live.

Emceed from Los Angeles’ Staples Center by Kimmel, the telecast will deploy more than 100 cameras to broadcast live with nominees stationed across the globe — and, providing some miracle of bandwidth, those signals will then be near-instantly beamed into viewers homes. If you can't imagine how that will look, that's because it's never happened before. And nobody is even 100 percent sure it can be pulled off. “It’s not going to work properly all the time,” a candid Ian Stewart, executive producer alongside Kimmel and Reggie Hudlin, offered reporters on Wednesday. “It’s just not. And we’ve got to embrace that.”

Whether it’s a cathartic dose of old-school TV magic or a technological Hindenburg, an unprecedented Emmys telecast is almost definitely happening this weekend. And here’s all that we know about them so far.

Is there a red carpet?

No. Since these Emmys are more likely to resemble the world’s most expensive public-access program than the gala events of yore, and many nominees are already said to be opting for casual attire, the red carpet has been nixed. Producers initially mulled a preshow but scrapped it in favor of focusing on the main telecast, a beast in and of itself. Instead, ABC News will air an 90-minute Emmy special. The best bet for the sartorially enthused is to creep on Instagram, TikTok and Twitter to see what nominees show off before and during the show or watch E!'s red carpet-less preshow.

Is it really live?

Yes. Not only are the Emmys airing live, the telecast is hands down the most ambitious TV endeavor since the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on almost every kind of production. Other awards shows, like the BET Awards and the VMAs, have all relied on the pretape. “[When] the whole thing is being driven by the reveal of who the winners are, it needs to be live,” Hudlin recently told THR. “Jimmy loves live, so we were all in agreement that we needed to fight to preserve that.”

Who’ll be on-site at the Staples Center?

Well, Kimmel for sure. Though the host was originally said to be going it completely alone in the arena, it’s now been confirmed that around a dozen notable telecast participants will be joining him in the flesh — or, as Kimmel put it in a taped statement to press Wednesday, he’ll have “select celebrities on hand to infect [him].” Fellow producers will also be on-site, as will an unconfirmed number of crewmembers. But the whole reason for the large venue, a big step up from the Emmys’ usual Microsoft Theater digs across the street, is to offer more than enough room for a substantial production team to maintain as much social distancing as possible. That’s something else viewers can anticipate seeing, as producers have expressed a desire to show much more BTS than in previous years.

Where’s everybody else?

Where won’t they be? The first Emmy promo promised 138 stars from 114 locations across 10 different countries. And while a great many of nominees will likely be home with family and friends, sources tell THR that several casts are opting to hold socially distanced parties at various producers’ and stars’ homes. So, not only is this the first virtual Emmys, it might also be the first to offer a peek at Reese Witherspoon’s landscaping — or, dare we dream, the Roy Family yacht.

Are winners being given a heads up?

No. Producers won’t even know until each category is announced. Like any other year, only an elite coterie of TV Academy insiders have any answers beforehand — though producers have tried to twist some arms. “We’ve said, 'Why don’t you tell us? We’ll keep the secret. No? Fine then,'" said Hudlin. “If a winner is in London, and it’s 4 in the morning and they’ve fallen asleep, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

What COVID-19 precautions are being taken?

By deploying distanced crews and sterilized equipment to nominees, most of the danger has been taken out of the Emmys. Kimmel and producers have done extensive outreach to make talent comfortable with the process. The biggest risks are being taken by those on-site at the Staples Center. But after preparing remotely for weeks, those now working in person have been tested and plan employ all the precautions (temperature checks, masks off camera, distancing) being used on the many sets that are already back up and running.

How long will the show last?

Awards shows famously tend to run over their allotted time, much to the chagrin of stars' babysitters and 11 o’clock local news anchors. Without the unpredictable circus that is the usual Emmy stage, commercial breaks often at the mercy of long-winded speeches, this show could actually end right on time. Still, producers are reluctant to make such a promise. “If we’re in someone’s house with them, and something extraordinary happens, we’re not going to stop if we’re running over,” executive producer Stewart said during a Wednesday Zoom with Hudlin and reporters. “We want these natural moments to play out. Why would you want to cut that off?”

What about the Emmy traditions viewers are used to seeing?

Specifics on planned production numbers and montages are being kept under wraps, but one piece that is a lock is the In Memoriam. “We will have a musical number by H.E.R, who will be performing during the In Memoriam,” Hudlin said Wednesday. “Having heard the demo that she put together, it’s going to be extraordinary.” It will likely be a crowded reel. TV icons Diahann Carroll, Regis Philbin and Carl Reiner are just three of the many lost in 2020, not to mention Chadwick Boseman. The Black Panther star, who tragically died of cancer in August at just 43, was better known for his film work but no stranger to TV.

What tone are producers targeting?

By Sunday evening, the U.S. COVID-19 death toll may very likely have passed 200,000. Also consider the ongoing protests for social justice, uncontained wildfires caused by climate change and the most contentious presidential election in modern history looming in November, and it doesn’t seem like an opportune moment to celebrate in America. But producers have said they’re targeting a balance that, in success, will entertain and offer viewers some catharsis. “My job, primarily, is to tell jokes,” Kimmel recently told THR in a lengthy Q&A. “And then, as producer, it’s to give people with real firsthand experience that applies when it comes to Black Lives Matter or equal rights or even just get out the vote [the opportunity to make] those things a part of the show. If people want to include that in their speeches, I’m certainly not going to tell them not to.”

What could go wrong?

“What could go wrong?” is the unofficial tagline of the 2020 Emmys. And nobody involved seems to be letting their pride get in the way acknowledging that, should technology fail them, this show could be a hot mess. But would that even be so bad? “It would be a disaster if we can’t get the nominees and winners on the air,” explained Kimmel. “That will be a disaster, but it could also be a beautiful disaster.” If signals fail, the onus will be on Kimmel to fill the dead air. And while producers have a few backup plans in place, it seems unlikely that the host who famously had to negotiate the La La Land-Moonlight Oscar debacle of 2017 before an audience of 33 million viewers will get out of the evening without at least a little ad-libbing.

Further complicating matters, wildfires continue to rage across the West Coast. The one closest to Los Angeles, the Bobcat Fire, poses a very real threat to Sunday’s show — not because it stands any chance of encroaching on the Staples Center, a disaster that would all but consummate 2020’s ongoing flirtation with the apocalypse, but because it’s burning perilously close to a cluster of radio and TV antennas. On Tuesday, the Bobcat Fire came within 500 feet of the Wilson Observatory and its adjacent communications hub. Damage to the equipment would wreak havoc on metro-Los Angeles communications, endangering some of those Emmy feeds. “When we said there were 130 things that could go wrong, it now looks like there’s 131 things that can go wrong,” said Stewart. He and Hudlin, however, were quick to point out that an awards show is not really something to worry about when 3.2 million acres of California have already burned this year.

… but will there be an alpaca?

Apparently, yes. Though they declined to elaborate, Hudlin and Stewart’s Wednesday chat with reporters included this curious morsel: “Isabel, a very lovely alpaca, is going to be featured live in the show,” said Stewart. “It may not be the name on everybody’s lips now, but after this she will be.”

Come for Isabel. Stay for potential chaos. The 2020 Primetime Emmy Awards air live this Sunday, Sept. 20, at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT on ABC.