Emmy host has work cut out for him

Neil Patrick Harris takes the stage Sunday

It's largely up to Doogie.

Kicking off the six-month-long awards season of telecasts, Emmy host Neil Patrick Harris will have his work cut out for him at the Nokia Theatre.

After last year's disjointed and critically panned telecast featuring five reality hosts, the affably understated sitcom actor turned occasional emcee has been entrusted with the task of helping rebuild the audience for the show -- and give successive awards shows hope that their telecasts too can reinvent themselves to appeal to that ever-elusive younger demo.

More Emmy coverage  

So far, Harris, who started his career as the improbably precocious yet poignant teen doc Doogie Howser in the eponymous ABC series, has been predictably tight-lipped about his precise plans for Sunday -- other than to say he wants the CBS show to be the star and he sees his role as one of supportive facilitation.

On the other hand, judging from his deft Tony Awards stint in June, he knows enough to come with jokes already written down and has a style in the self-deprecating vein that Ellen DeGeneres works, if not the sexy showman appeal, say, of a Hugh Jackman or high-energy antics of, say, a Billy Crystal.

If his previous emcee efforts are an indication (Creative Arts Emmys, TV Land Awards, etc.), Harris will act more as a Greek chorus and less as the theatrical center of attention -- sort of the opposite of his over-the-top lady-killer persona in his CBS comedy "How I Met Your Mother."

"He's good at this, in that classic Johnny Carson style -- Neil is low-key and wry, and as the French would say, bien dans sa peau (at ease in his own skin)," said a producer who has worked with him.

The Emmycast has challenges that go far beyond the control of a host, however adept.

Its rating slide has been inexorable -- slipping to an 8.2 rating/13 share (9.3 million homes) last year, down in a more or less continuous falloff from a decade high of 14.2 rating/23 share (14.5 million homes) in 2000.

And except for on the West Coast, the Emmys will be up against the second weekend of NBC's "Sunday Night Football" with a game featuring the high-profile New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. (Other nets are in rerun mode, other than HBO, which is premiering "Bored to Death" and the returning "Curb Your Enthusiasm.")

As if these problems weren't enough, the ongoing and rotating eight-year broadcast deal with the Big Four nets is up for renewal during the coming year, and how well the show does this weekend undoubtedly will bear on how healthy the license fee for the next batch of years that's negotiated will be.

John Shaffner, chairman and CEO of the Academy of Tele¬vision Arts & Sciences, said Thursday in an interview that he has "realistic expectations" with respect to what can be accomplished ratingswise. Given the NFL competition, matching or a little better than last year's performance is what he predicts.

In the telecast's favor, though, he points out that there will be no need to be portentous about anniversary this go-round (last year was the 60th edition), so the show can focus on the past year in television. There'll also be a band onstage to enliven the proceedings.

"There's going to be more of a storytelling feel, with each program genre grouped and contextualized better," he said.

Like the Oscarcast on March 7, the competition in top Emmy categories has been enlarged, with, because of ties, seven noms in the best drama and best comedy races. That means strict timing is even more crucial to keep the show to three hours.

" 'Beat the Clock' is what we're going to play," Shaffner said, adding that winners will be allowed to finish their sentences, but no droning on. "It'll be one big juggling act, but remember, audiences, and that's who we serve, are used to and like information going by fast. We'll be moving along at a clip."

As for Harris, Shaffner put it this way: "If there were a reality show called 'America's Next Great Host,' Neil would be a shoo-in as a contestant."