In Depth

Adalian Column: Time to Shake Up the Emmys

The night before the Emmys, I was talking to an industry insider who’s had first-hand experience dealing with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. We were discussing our low expectations for this year’s show when he blurted out an explanation for why the Emmys never get better that was more spot-on than any I had heard.

Joe Adalian

“They’re like the old Soviet Politburo,” this person said of the folks who oversee the show. “Everything is crumbling around them, and they think they’re living in paradise. They just don’t get it.”

After the debacle that was the 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards, it’s hard to believe that even the most entrenched bureaucrats within ATAS don’t now understand the need for immediate—and wholesale—changes to the Emmy show.

Specifically, ATAS officials need to declare right now that producer Ken Ehrlich and director Louis J. Horvitz will not be back. They may be pros, they may be talented, but the Emmys need new blood. That means Don Mischer and Gary Smith can’t apply for the job, either.

2008 Primetime Emmys

CAST REUNIONS Producers could have made better use of TV veterans such as Betty White, left, and Mary Tyler Moore.

The Academy should take a cue from its motion picture brethren, who last week hired awards show neophytes Bill Condon and Laurence Mark to produce the Oscars. Find someone in TV land (or maybe even the film world) with a fresh vision for how to mount an awards show and, more important, let that person have as much creative freedom as possible.

People who’ve worked on the Emmys before have told me horror stories of ATAS officials nixing untold numbers of good ideas because the old guard just didn’t “get” them.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s decision to hire an amorphous blob of reality hosts didn’t stem in part from ATAS executives vetoing bolder choices (like maybe ABC’s own Jimmy Kimmel?).

Once ATAS finds a new producer and gets out of that producer’s way, there are some other things that can be done to make the Emmys watchable again:

—A comedian must always host the Emmys. Period.

—Break down the walls between prime-time and daytime, network and cable. The Emmys aren’t the Oscars; even the biggest TV stars feel like our friends. So why should TV’s most important night be about just a handful of A-list actors? I want to see Jon and Kate from “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” interacting with the Walker clan from “Brothers and Sisters.” Why shouldn’t Anderson Cooper ham it up with Metro News 1 anchor Robin Scherbatsky from “How I Met Your Mother”? (Of course, such a scenario is unlikely given the mutual disdain the New York and L.A. TV academies seem to have for each other.)

—Banish all the long-form categories to the Creative Arts Emmys. Maybe three networks still make movies for television. Why should 20 minutes or more of the show be devoted to a genre that’s no longer relevant?

—Cast reunions are fine—if you make them relevant to today’s generation. Tina Fey was honored to get an award from Mary Tyler Moore and Betty White, but she barely got to interact with her heroes. Imagine the reaction if Emmy producers had pre-taped a bit where the cast of “30 Rock” found themselves in the WMJ newsroom?

—Go populist with the categories. Nobody’s suggesting the Emmys morph into the People’s Choice Awards, but why not introduce some new categories to reflect how TV has changed in the last 60 years? Some possibilities: Best addition to a cast, ensemble cast or season finale.

Viewers, meanwhile, could determine honorary Emmys in a couple of less serious categories (reality show villain, most unexpected plot twist, most gruesome murder on a CBS crime drama).

And why not introduce a best show category? “By ending with best drama alone, the Academy is stating that one-hour dramas are the pinnacle of our medium,” a producer friend notes. “Is that really true?

—Let the winners speak. With fewer categories, there’ll be time.

Of course, even if the Academy made every change noted above, it would be hard for the Emmys to recapture the prestige they once had. Awards shows of all kinds are struggling in the Perez Hilton era, when celebrities can be seen in the wild 24/7. And with TV audiences increasingly splintered due to ever-expanding choices, there aren’t as many communal moments for the Emmy to honor. (The “Who Shot Nathan” storyline on “Heroes” just didn’t resonate the way “Who Shot J.R.?” did a quarter-century ago.)

But if the TV Academy doesn’t at least try to shake things up, it’s not hard to see where the Emmys will end up.

As one network executive bluntly put it, “They’re going to produce themselves into irrelevance.”