The Emmys Will Go On, But What Will the Show Look Like?

Annelise Capossela

As Jimmy Kimmel boards the show as host, Hollywood wrestles with the future of awards fetes — and new examples both remote (the BET Awards) and in-person (South Korea's bizarre Baeksang Awards) present a few options.

"I don't know where we will do this or how we will do this or even why we are doing this, but we are doing it and I am hosting it." 

A snarky comment from talent accompanying a press release rarely draws attention, but Jimmy Kimmel's earnest-yet-bemused confusion over the recent news that he will host and exec produce ABC's Sept. 20 Primetime Emmys telecast has inspired speculation. With nearly three full months still to go before the event, and novel-coronavirus-related restrictions making crowded kudos fests like those of the past inconceivable, it seems equally fair to suggest that the night could find him emceeing a subdued ceremony at a sterilized locale or moderating a 200-nominee Zoom call.

"There are multiple plans for an in-person ceremony and a virtual "ceremony," ABC's entertainment president Karey Burke tells THR. "The producers and Jimmy have been hard at work on what those might look like. I have total confidence in whatever shape it takes, it's going to be wildly entertaining."

Neither the network nor leadership at the Television Academy is said to be likely to agree to commit to specifics until the Emmys are closer. But even as lifting state and city regulations make it possible for some California productions to resume, the persistence of COVID-19 — see L.A. County's latest grim infection statistics, a record 2,571 new cases on June 22 alone — renders the suggestion of gathering people for any kind of celebration rather moot.

So if the Emmys do go virtual, the first solid example of how the show could look will reveal itself June 28. That's when the BET Awards, the marquee event on the ViacomCBS network's calendar, trades in its sprawling Staples Center show for a pretaped affair hosted by actor-comedian Amanda Seales. "The biggest difference is obviously audience," says Connie Orlando, BET executive vp, head of specials, music programming and music strategy, and longtime BET Awards producer. "It's sad, but once you remove that, you're no longer limited to a stage. We've leaned into the absence of a venue — and that includes quite a few epic performances we had the time to produce."

After a trial run in April with virtual coronavirus benefit Saving Our Selves, hosted by Kelly Rowland, Terrence J and Regina Hall, Orlando says new capabilities include a sterile set for Seales. There, the host will film her monologue, interstitials and sketches throughout the week — never with more than 20 staff working, all of them minding guidelines set out by a ViacomCBS task force. (For a quick comparison, about 300 staffers traditionally work behind the scenes at the BET Awards, an event that pulled 5.3 million viewers to the network in 2019.) Live elements are not off the table, but as of six days before the event, Orlando still wasn't sure if they'd be incorporated. "It's always hard being the first one," she says, "but the pandemic introduced a new way of doing things. Specials are really going to evolve."

Like many of the remotely produced specials that have aired since March, the BET Awards have the benefit of leaning on performance — something the TV-focused Emmys don't have the luxury of highlighting beyond the occasional musical skit. Several producers cited the lack of songs as the Emmys' biggest obstacle, one noting that the precedent for any virtual version already aired in April. "It's going to be a nicer version of what they did with the NFL Draft," says a veteran awards show producer of the recent football event, which earned a record 8.4 million viewers for ABC and ESPN. "Actors are going to be at home, with cameras on them and their families, waiting to see if they've won. And, if done right, that could be great."

But what if Hollywood's collective wood-knocking works and September does bring with it some sense of normalcy? South Korea's Baeksang Arts Awards, the only show that's attempted to bring people together in person since global coronavirus restrictions went into place, paints a dystopian picture of how future events might look. The June 5 film and TV fete wrangled socially distanced nominees (no plus-ones) in a cavernous exhibition center 14 miles outside of Seoul, as viewers watched the eerily empty affair on TV.

"We still have a hold on the Microsoft Theater," Burke says of attempting something similar with the Emmys. "Should we be able to gather in large groups, that's a possibility."

Lesley Goldberg contributed to this report.

This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.