A Very Different (but Successful) Emmys

By Amit Jagwani  | 

Television and film production is resuming across the industry in fits and starts, returning with heightened levels of caution and health safety following successful but complicated returns of unscripted TV series. What remained uncertain until recently was how hallmark cultural television events would resume production and what they would look like. The NCAA College Basketball Tournament, a massive draw for CBS each spring, was cancelled in March.

The Summer Olympics have been postponed until 2021, and only recently have pro sports leagues entered their playoffs. MTV’s Video Music Awards attempted a mostly-virtual event in August, but the return of the Television Academy’s Emmy Awards marks the beginning of what should prove to be an interesting (and mostly socially distant) television awards season.

Nicknamed the “Pandemmys” and emceed by returning host Jimmy Kimmel, the event served as Hollywood’s bellwether event, even though specific production details remained cloaked in mystery until the live broadcast. And it was a critical smash. Indiewire described the 2020 Emmys as a “technically immaculate awards show,” lauding it as “surprising, enjoyable, and messy as hell.” The production cut no corners, renting the Staples Center in LA and using its size and technical capabilities to allow for multiple locations and sets. The organizers also put camera operators and laptops in nominees’ homes, hotels, and yards, comically sending people to deliver awards in hazmat suits designed to look like tuxedos. The dress code was loosened, and still, there was a virtual red carpet.

This all worked beautifully. The Creative Arts Emmys and the MTV VMAs used mostly pre-taped acceptance speeches, made before the nominees knew if they won, which made it impossible to capture the emotion of the moment. The decision to have live acceptances brought life and charisma to the Emmys, as viewers could study each star’s home setup or entourage. The cast for big Comedy Series winner Schitt’s Creek gathered, after negative Covid tests, to watch and celebrate together. The heartening effect echoed the pre-taped roll call at August’s Democratic National Convention — many people may have Zoom fatigue, but there is a certain warmth achieved by production bringing viewers into peoples’ homes across the country. Variety praised the evening’s “elán, charm and a level of effort so profound as to seem effortless — the sort of thing live TV at its best, social distancing or no, has always done.”

Of course, as is constant across the industry, ratings were down. This isn’t surprising, and the Emmys this year also had to contend with an NFL contest and an NBA Playoffs game (the first ever to be played in September). Last winter, Campaign detailed how declining ratings for almost all live awards shows pointed more toward an overall industry trend to digital and less to decreased viability: “ while people may no longer be gathering around a television set, awards shows definitely still have drawing power.”

While the 2021 Oscars have been delayed until April, it’s possible that the winter slate of awards shows will be produced as the Emmys were — in uncertain and difficult circumstances. Blockbusters continue to be postponed, and the prospects even for award nominees are up in the air. Fortunately, what the Oscars, Golden Globes, and their counterparts can control is their productions. The Oscars were willing to take a chance on a second year with no host, and reviews were good. Taking notes and signs from the Emmys, the live awards shows to come can give us what the best live TV events give us. And in the midst of the pandemic, that will be both the honest acknowledgment that 2020 has not been a normal year, while also helping Americans, as Time magazine summed up, find “their way back to something like normalcy, together.”

Amit Jagwani
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