In Defense of Emmy's Other Big Night

Jonathan Hession/Showtime

The Creative Arts Emmys, a week before the main show on Sept. 18, is suddenly on primetime, maybe more fun and sporting some new, serious cred.

In one of the most sensational snubs of the year, Showtime's The Borgias was overlooked for the drama series Emmy. This could be because -- as its Oscar-nominated director Neil Jordan told THR last spring -- the splashiest, goriest stories of the Renaissance pope's scandalous reign were being saved for the show's second season. Borgias' biggest rival, HBO's Game of Thrones, wisely did the opposite and plunged into its still-more complicated story, frontloading the gore. It stole Borgias' costume-epic thunder and earned 13 Emmy noms, including best drama series.

But thanks to the Creative Arts ceremony, this year's Emmy game isn't over for Borgias.

The show received six crafts nominations: costumes, cinematography, direction, art direction, visual effects and title theme. And like nine of Thrones' 13 noms, five of Borgias' six potential Emmys will be handed out at the Creative Arts Awards on Sept. 10 and telecast on ReelzChannel on Sept. 17, a day before the main Primetime Emmy Awards telecast on Fox -- reinforcing that Emmy's redheaded stepchild might not be as sexy, but she's just as important.

Speaking of redheads, it was Emmy reality winner and former Creative Arts host Kathy Griffin who famously nicknamed them "the Schmemmys." But the black-tie event carries much more weight for contenders than most imagine. It basically exists to shorten the main Emmy telecast to a workable length by awarding less-glamorous, arguably more-talented talents on another night (with a soupcon of celebs thrown in so it's not just a nongorgeous gaggle of drab geniuses with sensible shoes, like the Directors Guild Awards).

Focused on tech categories but also including guest actors and reality hosts, Creative Arts is where a vast majority of Emmys are awarded. For example, of the 104 noms this year that allow HBO to remain Emmy's biggest hog, 75 are in categories that will be awarded during the Creative Arts telecast; only 29 are on Fox's more-watched Primetime Emmy telecast.

Take away her Creative Arts Emmys, and HBO president of documentary programming Sheila Nevins would not be the world's biggest Emmy winner (22 and counting, according to the academy).

"The primetime awards give out 26 awards in three hours," says Spike Jones Jr., producer of the Creative Arts ceremony for 17 years. "We give out 76 awards in three hours and 15 minutes. And this year, we have big-name nominees." That's for sure: Lady Gaga (variety special for her HBO concert "Monster Ball"), Justin Timberlake (guest star for Saturday Night Live) and Gwyneth Paltrow (guest actress for Glee) are just three. In addition to his nomination for directing the pilot of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, Martin Scorsese is for up for a Creative Arts Emmy for nonfiction directing (PBS' A Letter to Elia/Reflecting on Kazan).

If nominated, will they come? "If they're willing, we'll send a bus!" says Jones.

Even if all of the big-name nominees show up, Creative Arts is fighting to win over some of its subjects. Last year, when the reality competition host award was moved from the big Emmy show to Creative Arts, nominated Survivor host Jeff Probst got frosted and threatened not to come. "He's won a couple times, so there's nothing to be upset about," says Probst's frequent Emmy rival, American Idol host Ryan Seacrest, who says he prefers that there are two distinct Emmy telecasts.

"I see it as an opportunity to get two tuxedos. For me it's like, 'Great, I get more wardrobe!' " says Seacrest.

Arousing wider excitement in Creative Arts also requires a more concerted branding effort, which this year centers largely on the academy's partnership with new telecaster ReelzChannel, a tiny, ambitious upstart taking over for the bigger E! network. But it's still an arena that its constituents feel leaves room for improvement.

"It's a shame the show is not even more publicized," says Craig Allen of Wieden+Kennedy, the Portland, Ore.-based ad firm and Creative Arts winner last year for its Old Spice commercial featuring Isaiah Mustafa (the spots have been viewed 55.5 million times on YouTube and are up for a second Emmy this year).

"For us, being there last year was a big deal," says Allen, creative director on the Old Spice campaign. "It was like, 'There's Clint Eastwood!' Weird. No other situation could bring all those types of people together." Matthew Weiner, Christina Hendricks, Ryan Murphy and Jane Lynch were there, too. "It's cool to have all the stars show up to salute all the people who make them look great," adds Allen.

"If you strip away the art that the folks in the Creative Arts part of the Emmy world are responsible for, those programs would be pretty naked as an art form," says ReelzChannel CEO Stan Hubbard. "When something's really good, you don't notice the cinematography, the makeup, the music -- because it just is there, and it pulls it all through. If you notice it, something is probably wrong, right?"

Allen says all the below-the-line talent makes the more prestigious Emmy work possible. It's the wizard behind the curtain. In fact, if Allen were creating an award-contending ad for the telecast, he would use that concept. "Not literally using The Wizard of Oz footage, but it would be some kind of unsung-hero theme," says Allen. "The Shmemmys are the cue-card holders of TV shows."

Adds the agency's Aaron Allen, the creative director whose Chrysler ad featuring Eminem is a nominee, "Without them, everything would go to crap."

Despite their enthusiasm, both Wieden executives admit they've never watched the Creative Arts Emmys, perhaps because the ceremony's former telecaster, E!, aired it at 1 p.m. the Friday before Sunday's Primetime Emmys.

"It made sense for the network, but for us it didn't make sense," says Jones. "We were in the same programming block as Khloe & Lamar or something. So we mutually said: 'You've been great with us for eight years. We'd like the opportunity to explore another network.' "

This year, ReelzChannel gave Jones that opportunity, promising to air the show at 8 p.m. the night before Fox airs the Primetime Emmys -- and five additional times. "We're staying out of Spike's way," says Hubbard, "and not trying to be a backseat driver in any way. Then things get done well." Hubbard adds that he pondered airing the Creative Arts show for exactly as long as he considered whether to pick up the miniseries The Kennedys after History dropped it in January. "Less than a day," he says. "You guys at THR called it 'the most radioactive miniseries ever made.' The radioactivity gave us a good glow that propelled us more rapidly than anything else we did in five years. Our ratings doubled after we announced The Kennedys were coming to ReelzChannel; with virtually the same lineup, our ratings in primetime have tripled." (And now, with Kennedys boasting
10 Emmy nominations, Hubbard figures that taking a chance on airing the Schmemmys will pay off, too.)

Less than a day is also about how long Jones used to have to edit the first Creative Arts ceremony when it was telecast by TV Land in 1998. "We had 24 hours to cut a three- or four-hour show down to an hour," he says. "It looked like a Ron Popeil infomercial. Most of us looked away from the monitors because we just didn't want to see."

Now that Jones has seven days to edit the telecast, he is more than willing to watch it this year and hopes more feel the same way. And he actually credits Griffin's ridicule for helping them climb out of obscurity.

"Every time she would mention the show on Larry King or in a concert, she would refer to it as the Schmemmys, so that word really got plastered around," he says. It's a lot easier to remember than "Creative Arts Awards." "Kathy Griffin made it a thing," says Aaron Allen. "It has a certain power when you name something like that, even in jest."

Jones promises to put more in the telecast worth talking about. "We're going broader as far as presenters," says Jones. "We are bringing back classic TV personalities from the '60s. We're also trying to get guest actors and actresses to recite rude, funny lyrics from nominated songs by Seth MacFarlane or Robert Klein or Justin Timberlake -- hopefully read by someone like Alfre Woodard, though Alfre doesn't know this yet. We have to take these people out of their comfort zones."

Star-power boost aside, though, Jones says his Creative Arts priorities remain the same: Entertain 4,000 people in the house and keep the TV-loving people happy at home. "We don't have to have bookings and bits that somebody in Iowa will get, so it allows us to be a little looser, a little hipper," he says.

And even in its somewhat hipper new incarnation, the Schmemmys are pretty much a relaxed industry party compared to the big Emmy show. There's still that echo of the first, untelevised Creative Arts Awards ceremony Jones produced at Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1995, which Jones recalls as "3,000 people getting smashed." And, even though the Nokia bar closes 15 minutes after the Creative Arts show starts, there's still some of that cozy old-school feel.

"Besides what they bring in their own pockets and purses, some have discovered the JW Marriott bar right next door to the Nokia Theatre," says Jones. "By the time we get to the very end, a couple people come up a little sauced."           

CRAFTS' PERFECT PAIRS: Here are nine pairs of  Emmy talent confirmed to present awards at the Creative Arts ceremony

  • Chuck Lorre, Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men
  • Connie Britton, Jason Katims, Friday Night Lights
  • Mitzi Gaynor, Bob Mackie, Mitzi … Roarin' in the 20's
  • Alison Brie, Dan Harmon, Community
  • Phil Keoghan, Bertram Van Munster, The Amazing Race
  • Noah Wyle, Robert Rodat, Falling Skies
  • Nick Simmons, Gene Simmons, Gene Simmons, Family Jewels
  • Kiernan Shipka, Matt Weiner, Mad Men
  • Mark Burnett, Jeff Probst, Survivor