The Problem With Awards Shows

Illustration: Peter Sucheski

How August’s Emmys can avoid the mistakes that plague every night of congratulation.

If you were in charge of running the Emmys this year, what would you be thinking right about now? Something along the lines of not imploding creatively like the Oscars, perhaps? Granted, the Emmys are a long way away, but the process starts this month.

It isn’t just how the Academy Awards have devalued themselves while simultaneously enabling the Golden Globes — or even how the Emmys have a real chance at taking a long-needed step forward. It’s about how awards shows in general are the Achilles’ heel of the entertainment industry, even if many of them have been notching ratings gains of late. When your business is entertainment, how is it possible to mess up your biggest night?

The Academy Awards

Let’s start here because it’s still fresh. Although I outlined some obvious improvements during my review of the latest Oscars, changing this show requires a fundamental re-evaluation of how it’s been done all these years. It’s too big, too sleep-inducing and moldy. So:

1. Do not ever repeat the hosting mistake you made this year.

2. You have to fundamentally accept that this is not a private party to fete everyone in film. It’s a television special where most of the viewers are non-industry.

3. If you want to inject more hipness (read: lower the demo), then let pop acts cover the best songs.

4. It’s essential that winners don’t have a laundry list of people to thank. Yes, you really can fix this problem.

5. Don’t race through the “In Memoriam” segment. Viewers like this part of the show and believe what you’re doing is rude.

The Emmys

See above. Seriously, many of the same problems plague the Emmys. Some of the rubber-stamping of past winners has eroded, but the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences needs a better system for ensuring that voters actually watch television and thus know what they’re voting on. Beyond that:

1. Dismantling the so-called blue-ribbon panels wasn’t the greatest idea. But the real flaw is the limited nature of the submissions. How is it fair that actors submit an episode where they ostensibly do their best work, when a cumulative appreciation would more accurately reflect their performances? Yes, watching 22 or 13 episodes is “harder” than watching a two-hour movie. But the alternative seems half-assed and prone to tweaking by an actor’s one great episode. Body of work, people. Body of work.

2. Your documentary category is a mess. There’s a difference between news “documentaries” and those longer works done by the likes of Ken Burns. “Outstanding informational program — longform.” Now that’s just lame.

3. Study past failures, and be better. The Wire was the best television series ever made, and you blew it for five seasons on best series and all the acting categories. You can’t live down that shame. You can only hope to not repeat it.

The Golden Globes

Congratulations, you’re the most enjoyable awards show on the air — by a wide margin. But:

1. Nobody takes you seriously. Clean your house.

2. Your awards show is a party. If you get pissy about hosts like Ricky Gervais, then you’re going to become the Oscars.

3. You can become more relevant and important by expanding your television awards. Make them at least equal to film. And fix the television categories — for the most part, they’re awful.

4. Keep the vibe light. If you don’t want Gervais back, get Jon Stewart. And keep taking risks (but not one as blatantly stupid as asking two actors to host).

The Grammys

What are you anymore? You’ve gone all in on the live performances that mix artists together. That’s good. But now it just feels like an all-star concert with a few awards announcements. It’s a mess. Furthermore:

1. You’re trying to be all things to all people, and in music, that might be impossible. Viewers in the middle to upper end of the 18-49 demo often don’t know half the younger artists they’re seeing. The younger demo doesn’t necessarily like or even know about older artists. Make the connections. Let music journalists/critics help you create a great mashup of generations and influences.

2. Know your weakness, and do something to keep it interesting. That means when country music stars come on, or rappers are on, you need to make sure those disparate audiences aren’t tuning out. Do some taped bits on finding common ground through music. (Maybe Eminem and Lady Antebellum both like James Brown?)

3. Get a host. Christ, your show is random.

This is just a start. I’m not claiming to have all the answers or even one good one. But I do know that if no innovation or moment of creative brilliance comes about to make these shows different from the past, then the television audiences will just tune them out. Get together, and get it right.