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This weekend, the inaugural Children’s & Family Emmy Awards will kick off at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, marking a major moment for both the programming space and TV industry at large.
It was an effort years in the making says Adam Sharp, The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences CEO and president, and one that seeks to honor one of the most rapidly growing genres awarded by NATAS. The first standalone expansion of the Emmy Award competition since the launch of the Sports Emmy Awards and the News & Documentary Emmy Awards in 1979, the two-night event will feature onstage, in-room interpreters; more than 50 categories; counts YouTube star-multihyphenate performer JoJo Siwa and comedian-actor Jack McBrayer as its creative arts and main ceremony hosts, respectively; and present a special lifetime achievement honor to children’s and family icon LeVar Burton.
With a diverse field of nominees and presenters including Moongirl and Devil Dinosaur producer Laurence Fishburne, actress and Proud Family voice star Kyla Pratt, Heartstopper stars Joe Locke and William Gao, Molly of Denali voice performer Sovereign Bill, along with Madagascar: A Little Wild sign-over artist Shaylee Mansfield and show consultant Jevon Whetter, the show will finally give the industry a space to celebrate its creative, technical and diversity achievements on its own terms.
“The mission of our academy has always been to foster and recognize excellence in our industry and that isn’t limited to just the big-name stars above the titles whose faces are on the billboards along the highway. It’s every aspect of the industry,” Sharp tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I think we take our role very seriously — that we need to elevate and foster talent wherever it is because that is critical to making sure that there is still excellent television, whatever television may be, whatever device it’s on a generation from now.”
Notably, the weekend arrives amid a year of growth and cuts that have not only raised questions about the future of children’s and family programming in a non-linear TV distribution reality but a renewed understanding of the space’s significance alongside programming aimed at adults. Ahead of the ceremonies, THR spoke to Sharp about how it all came together; what the show reveals about the state of the industry; what’s changed from the Daytime iteration; and why celebrating diversity — and Burton — is essential to honoring children’s and family programming.
Let’s start with the origin story. How long has this been in the works? And what really sparked — outside of the general reality that there’s a lot of kids and family content out there — the desire to do a separate ceremony for the space?
This has been in the works for several years now. It’s a conversation that began between the two academies before the pandemic as we were both struggling with the broader issue and challenge of streaming and how that tested the traditional alignment of our two academies, which had separated our competitions based on day-part. That was all fine and good before the age of streaming when all of a sudden airtime was no longer that much of a meaningful construct anymore. The viewer now decides when a show airs. And as we see in our daytime competition, if you want to watch Young and the Restless at midnight, that’s when you’re watching your daytime soaps. We found that we were both facing this challenge and children’s programming was a large part of both competitions. It was probably the fastest growing part, certainly in the daytime competition, that all of a sudden became a category that no longer had a distinction. If you looked at dramas you could still, even if you took away the day part, still have a gut feeling of “OK, that’s a daytime soap and that’s a primetime drama.” But a children’s cartoon — it was really getting harder and harder to say “Oh, that’s a primetime children’s cartoon versus a daytime children’s cartoon.”
So we started having a conversation around this broader realignment, not just in children’s, but everything else. How do we align by genre to the day part? Parallel to that, the pandemic hit and we weren’t doing live events. The virtual shows gave our academy a lot of opportunities for experimentation. Creating a new ceremony all of a sudden didn’t require booking a theater and doubling the production costs of the additional crew. So we experimented with presenting our children’s categories on a separate night with a separate host, making a few changes to the format and feel. The response was phenomenal. So these three stars aligned where we realized the old way of breaking things up isn’t working, we have this category of programming that is just exploding in quantity and quality — I mean, when I was a kid, it was three hours on Saturday morning on a free network — and when we did it as a standalone ceremony, people liked and were excited about it. We then came together with Television Academy and last year, we made the first step in this direction, where those children’s programming categories of primetime migrated into the daytime competition. Now with a return to in-person events, we’re able to complete that arc with the standalone ceremony. It has really been a good four-year journey for the two academies and one really fueled by the changing landscape of the industry and productivity of this particular genre.
Both the pandemic and streaming had a big impact on the children’s and family space, especially animation, over the last year which has seen some studios and distributors really commit to the space and others pulling back or reassessing their approach. How do you feel like your show might ultimately be representative of this boom and tightening?
I think the tightening is in many ways a bit artificial. It is a victim of perhaps broader industry shifts and changes that aren’t necessarily about children’s programming, but where it’s an ancillary piece of it. For example, I look at a lot of the shifts in investment over at Warner Brothers Discovery. There was a lot of concern when there was some disinvestment in the programming on HBO Max. I’m not convinced that we have seen the full picture yet of what’s coming there. I don’t think anyone but David Zaslav knows what’s in that crystal ball. I think that what we have seen is trying to clear the desk and starting to put the new pieces in place, but we haven’t seen what those new pieces are. When I came in as the CEO, we were coming off some challenging periods with the daytime community after the 2018 awards. There was a period for me where there was a reset, a pullback and then being able to say “OK, now where do we invest with moving forward?” Just as I would not have wanted anyone to look at that middle period as a representative of the long-term vision, I hesitate to see that in another executive whether it’s Zaslav or now Iger returning to Disney. Because when I look at our numbers, I see nothing but industry excitement.
The year before we combined the competitions, across the two academies, there were about 1,800 submissions in the children’s categories. When we combined the two, we thought we’d see some increase, but it went up to 2200 and we thought, “Wow, OK. That is a substantial one but they’re happy to be under one roof.” We thought when we spun it off this year as a standalone with its own name, we might see another little bump, maybe another 10 percent that gets us to 2,400 or 2,500. We did not expect to go from 2,200 to 3,000 submissions in one year. The last time we did an in-person show in 2019 we looked at the attendees and used that to then project out what we thought the ticket sales would be for the ceremonies this weekend. We have more than doubled the projections and we have sold out those ceremonies. These are ticket purchases that are made not by individuals but by networks and distributors. Each of the players we’ve spoken about is making significant six-figure investments in making sure that people are here and being part of the celebration and advancing this community. So I think it’s very clear that the community is invested in this and in championing this.
As you noted, children’s and family programming had previously been awarded during the Daytime Emmys. How did your experiences there — including a two-night ceremony versus a single night — inform what you wanted or didn’t want to do with a children’s standalone?
When we entered this year and started this competition, we expected this to be a one-night event. With that ticketing projection, we didn’t even expect to sell out. It was when we started to see that excitement, particularly coming off those submission counts, that we realized the community interest was such that we could support a separate creative arts event and a main ceremony — which is what we’ve traditionally done around daytime — and that it would be an equivalent scale event in its inaugural year, not something that would take two or three years to grow the way we expected going in. I think what we’re most excited about is being able to give it a personality of its own. The Daytime Emmy Awards ceremony, the culture of the event, is very much defined by daytime dramas. Even though we honor our game shows and talk shows and strictly children’s programming, the daytime dramas are the most awarded set of categories in that competition, certainly the lion’s share of personality and performer categories. With the telecast, it’s even more soap opera-focused. So that winds up setting the tone of the event. I think part of the excitement you’re seeing around children’s is it’s now our party. You see everything around from the logo design to the choice of posts to just the look and feel and the graphics — everything is meant to convey a feeling that this is about the children’s family community and is not just honoring them at someone else’s party.
The show is honoring 18 months versus a year of programming. Can you talk a little about that choice?
That is just a one-time thing. Moving forward, we will be on an annual calendar, but part of that is to align moving forward. Historically, daytime has been on a calendar year eligibility year. We do the show in June and that’s for awards programming that aired from January to December the prior year. Because children’s is going to be on a six-month offset of that — with children’s on the same June 1 to June 1 calendar as primetime eligibility and awards toward the end of the year — we needed to do a reset and we needed to ride that gap. We didn’t want to have six months of programming that doesn’t get awarded anywhere. Moving forward, it’ll be one-year calendars.
Can you also talk about the judging system for children’s and family? It’s different from the Primetime Emmys and has undergone some recent changes.
The judging system is the same judging system as all the other competitions NATAS administers. Daytime, sports, news and documentary are all judged the same way and we did actually made a number of changes to that process, adjusting our judging scale and our approach to breaking ties and dealing with potential attempts by judges to game the system. In 2019 and up through 2021 during the pandemic, we worked with a Ph.D. data scientist whose research focus is on the mathematics of judging systems. One of the things we did was we took several years of anonymous judging data from across our competitions. He looked at that in a purely statistical fashion — the data didn’t have the names of the judges, the shows or anything, it was just entry one, judge one, here’s the score — and basically said if the goal is to have the fairest judging system possible, where is it accomplishing that or where isn’t it? He advised us on where we could make some tweaks to the process to optimize that a bit better and to make some of these algorithms to help identify when judges are gaming the system. So when your credit card detects that this might be a fraudulent charge, the bank calls the merchant and says decline, it could set up a red flag for the awards committee to say this judge doesn’t look like they’re playing by the rules. We implemented these changes two years ago and feel really confident in that. We also rolled out on transparency report, which every year discloses any actions we’ve taken for causes, so we’re really proud that among all the media awards organizations, we have probably the most statistically robust and supportive judging process out there. The most transparent and documented one out there, too. We’re proud to be a leader in that and hope others follow suit.
The ceremony celebrates with breadth the kind of work, like voice performance, that rarely gets honored at this scale or prominence by other major award shows. How did you think about expanding categories for this show from its daytime iteration?
For the category expansion, there were categories that had to move over. Then there were categories that in daytime had been shared, where you had children’s craftspeople, for example, in the same category as craftspeople from the other daytime genres. So when it was spun out, that meant having to create a symmetrical category on the children’s side. It also gave us the room to create categories where things had gotten overcrowded. Daytime — and this gets to another reason why it was necessary to do the spin-off — had topped 100 categories and that gets impractical. That becomes sort of impossible to manage — certainly impossible to present in a show. The creative arts ceremony was 77 categories when doing it in 2019. It was a four-and-a-half-hour ceremony that was basically just, “OK everybody line up and get through this.” It made us very resistant to add categories because that 100 mark really created a psychological barrier and administrative barrier. Moving into a new competition gave us breathing room, so when we were looking at categories that had literally hundreds of entries — something like our voice performance categories that had blossomed into several 100 entries over on the daytime side — it allowed us to give some of that more granularity. And I think there’s probably more opportunity in the years ahead now that we’ve seen how heavily subscribed the competition is now.
Beyond categories for voice work, another area you specifically celebrate that others do to a lesser degree is that young adult programming band — both in terms of the artists themselves and the content. In some ways, it’s still an emerging space in children’s and family, so why are those two categories important to emphasize at the Emmys?
There’s a few reasons for that. Kids grow up fast, but when you look at basic programming, people don’t tend to age out of brackets that quickly. We talk about demo groups — 18 to 30, 25 to 54 — and the typical demo brackets are two-decade spans. But within the children’s and family space, just a two or three-year age difference can be completely different programming, both in terms of the sensibilities of the audience but also the needs of the audience and the sensitivities of the audience — what their developing brains can absorb; what nuance they can comprehend; what will be entertaining; what will be informative; what will be damaging that might not be damaging to the adult or older child. I think there are so many more subtleties and gradations between age bands within our space. So by that token, I think it’s perfectly fine to say awarding skill at producing for that older, broader bracket makes sense. But you have to have discreet targeting for how you’re programming and then awarding achievement in programming for the spaces at the younger end. That’s number one. Number two, these areas are where we see the greatest opportunity for up-and-coming talent and a greater diversity of talent. It’s where we’re seeing a lot more LGBTQIA talent coming in, a lot more BIPOC talent coming into the community.
At the older end of the spectrum, even in our daytime competitions or in primetime, that’s where you will see — particularly in the performance category — more of the established nominees. We’ve seen a similar dynamic in our other competitions. Our sports competition and our news and documentary competition, a challenge is always that if someone is being competitive as the best play-by-play announcer or the best correspondent, there’s someone who’s probably made a career at the network level for a good long time. But that also means that we are fishing in the pond that was stocked by the hiring decisions made by the networks 20 or 30 years ago. That’s why, two years ago, we established in the sports competition an outstanding emerging talent category and last year established in the news competition an outstanding emerging journalists category. What we discovered with each of these was that they were immediately the most diverse talent categories in each competition. And with their submissions, their camera people entered into other categories; their editors entered into other categories; everyone then associated with those entries volunteered to judge in other categories. So these two categories wound up being that rising tide of all ships that increased the diversity, not just in those categories, but across the other categories and the judging pool, as well. In the year we created the emerging talent category in sports, it was the first time we nominated all women in the sports reporter category.
This speaks a bit to your hosting and presenter choices, which have some notable diversity for it being the first go. How did you think about your presenter pool?
With our selections for hosts and presenters, there’s our first indigenous nominee, the first sign-over artist to be nominated. Recognizing that diversity, that community and the diversity of experiences that we celebrate with not just our event, but the shows we honor, tells so much of the story of children’s television. Good children’s television is about helping kids recognize that they have a place in this world; for them to be able to look on the screen and see that, “outside the walls of my house there is a place where I belong and where there are other people like me.” That tapestry of stories and experiences is what good children’s television celebrates and we want to honor that.
You’re also honoring LeVar Burton with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Why was he the best pick for your inaugural event?
LeVar was such a perfect choice for our inaugural Lifetime Achievement winner because his seminal work in children’s television is Reading Rainbow and he has never strayed from that core in anything else he’s done. He’s turned that into a lifelong mission of promoting children’s literacy and carried that spirit through all he’s done through his career — and a broader feeling of how television can be used to inspire, to move the culture, to educate. So you have Reading Rainbow and bringing Alex Haley’s Roots to life on ABC, but then, later with Star Trek: The Next Generation — as Whoopi Goldberg says in the tribute video that will play this weekend, before Star Trek there were no Black people in space. There was Nichelle Nichols before him on the original Star Trek and him on Next Generation taking that story a step further not only in space, but to be the engineer — to be the Scotty — and the one who solves the problems when all the white people are stuck. He’s the one who has the answer and fixes it. I think that was remarkable in the ’80s and is still a remarkable piece of casting. Using that platform is something that he has done so effectively and been true to the best ideals of what television can be through every role, both on and off the screen.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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