Sep 29, 2003  •  Post A Comment

At the Governor’s Ball after the 55th Emmys, I congratulated producer Don Mischer and his team on this year’s show. As always, there were superb technical credits, loads of stars, a classy presentation and the show came in (almost) on time (a mere 12 minutes late).
Yet later, doubts lingered, like mental acid reflux bringing back flashes of previous shows. I realized that what most bothered me had to do with the annual patronage system under which the Emmys exist.
Pretty much since Emmy was born after World War II, the network presenting that particular year has had tremendous influence on the choice of host and other elements. Some nets, like drunks given a free key to the bar, load up each show with their favorite flavors of the season, turning the awards into another promotional opportunity.
And why not? They are simply following the Hollywood Golden Rule: He who has the gold rules. They paid for the rights, in the millions of dollars, so they get their way. At least that is conventional thinking.
There was a time the Emmys were a backwater show compared with the glamorous Oscars, and shilling for the network of the year wasn’t a big deal. However, with the proliferation of truly unimportant and stupid award shows, the Emmys have gained a good deal of stature. They really do represent something worthy, some measure of excellence. They deserve better.
That is why I am troubled. I wish the enduring image from Sunday was of brave, brilliant Aaron Sorkin in front of “The West Wing” team graciously accepting the surprise award of the evening for best drama, pointing up the shame that Mr. Sorkin was forced off the show he created because of low ratings and late scripts.
I wish what stayed with me was the genuine delight in the eyes of Deborah Messing when she finally won for “Will & Grace,” after years of watching all of her co-stars score golden ladies. I wish it were Walter Cronkite’s recalling Bob Hope.
I wish that in a world often ruthlessly ruled by youth culture, I could bask in the knowledge that so many mature players got recognition, from a beaming Doris Roberts to Tyne Daly to veterans Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands and Maggie Smith. And how wonderful to celebrate Tony Shalhoub.
I wish I felt great for David Chase, HBO and the “Sopranos” gang, but I felt their pain when awards in acting, directing and writing didn’t lead to the top award, best drama series.
I wish I could say that I was blown away by the comic styling of the dozen-or was it six dozen?-“embedded” hosts. They were able comics, but it was like being at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood. Each “name” did a short set, never to be seen again.
So Ellen, Conan and Garry, all brilliant when serving as the single Emmy host, were not nearly as effective this time. They didn’t get to develop their theme and bring the audience in as co-conspirators. There were no keen comic observations to put the late stages of the show into hilarious perspective. Let’s hope that ABC will return to a single host next year (and isn’t it great that Billy Crystal will return to the Oscars?).
I have done my best to forget “Saturday Night Live’s” Darrell Hammond, under a ton of makeup, doing his imitations of Arnold the candidate and the dour Don Rumsfeld. As flat as the Schwarzenegger bit fell, the Rumsfeld imitation was even more unfunny and inappropriate.
Unfortunately, the image that does stay with me is Bill Cosby, grimacing in his seat, his lips tight, as insult-comedienne Wanda Sykes marched by in the Shrine aisle playing roving reporter, trying to re-create the hip, edgy urban humor of her Fox show.
In her element, Ms. Sykes’ barbs often hit home. At the Emmys, her humor struck me as out of place and lacking class. It took away from the genuine emotion of the evening. I felt she crossed the line by repeatedly plugging her show (as did others, including Mike Myers, who promoted his upcoming Dr. Seuss movie).
Dr. Cosby, one of TV’s true pioneer heroes, did himself no great honor either with his dark glasses and an acceptance speech long on praise for the late Fred Rogers and short on any mention of recently deceased Bob Hope, for whom his award was named.
Three days after the show, I called Mr. Mischer to ask about some of my concerns. As it turns out, he felt the same embarrassment I did at Ms. Sykes’ appearances. He said he had seen her work before and felt it could be a funny addition. She was suggested by Fox but not forced on him. Unfortunately, due to her schedule, he said Ms. Sykes had to cancel several creative meetings and never discussed or rehearsed her on-air presentation with the producers before going live. “Choices were made that didn’t work,” said Mr. Mischer. “As producer, that is my responsibility.”
That may be true, but the Emmy producer really isn’t in total control. This was Mr. Mischer’s eighth time doing TV’s top awards show, but the first under a new eight-year contract between the TV academy and the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox). This was supposed to be the beginning of a new era. It is the first Emmy contract to include a “creative rights” clause, said academy Chair Bryce Zabel, who helped negotiate the landmark deal. That means for the first time the academy had a real say in the content of the show, along with the network, host and producer.
While Fox certainly had its input this year, Mr. Mischer said Fox actually was less pushy than other networks have been in the past. So this isn’t about Fox, or any one network. It is about making the Emmys a true industry showcase and not as much of a promotional vehicle for that year’s distributor.
Which brings me to a proposal the academy probably can’t bring forward itself. There may be seven years left on the new Emmy contract, but like Brad Garrett, Jane Kaczmarek and James Gandolfini, I think the TV academy should demand a renegotiation. The academy should have sole creative control, in consultation with the producer. The Emmys should be about what is best for the show, the audience and the honorees.
The fact is the best parts of the Emmys and most award shows are the genuine moments of unexpected wins and heartfelt emotions. The best thing any organization or producer can do is provide a classy environment and then get out of the way to let the magic pour across the airwaves and into viewers’ hearts.
The Emmys should not be a factor in Ms. Sykes’ ratings or Mr. Myers’ movie’s box office take.
It is time to take the patronage out of the Emmys. In the 500-plus-channel universe, it is no longer about the network, whether it is broadcast or cable. It needs to be about only one thing: Who did the best work during the past year, and what best serves the presentation? Anything less just tarnishes that solid-gold lady as she continues to hold up the world.