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Emmys needs a new way to draw TV viewers

Protests prompt the academy to abandon plans to pre-tape some categories.

August 13, 2009|Matea Gold and Richard Verrier

Forced to abandon its plan to truncate the presentation of some awards during the Emmys, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences now faces limited options in its efforts to broaden the appeal of next month's telecast.

After push-back from the Hollywood guilds, the academy announced Wednesday that it was dropping the idea of pre-taping eight categories before the Sept. 20 show and airing edited clips of those acceptance speeches.

"This decision was made to mend relationships within the television community," said television academy Chief Executive John Shaffner in a statement. "Our goal is to celebrate the year in television, honor excellence and this year's great achievements with the support of our industry colleagues and our telecast partner, CBS."

The move marked a clear victory for the unions and cable networks like HBO, which had the most nominations in the categories that would have been pre-taped. But the academy's reversal robs producers of a tool they hoped would have boosted the ratings of the Emmys, which last year was dominated by niche cable shows with small followings.

Just 12.3 million viewers, one of the smallest Emmy audiences in two decades, tuned in for last year's production on ABC, which was co-hosted by a gaggle of reality show hosts. A record-low number of 18-to-49-year-olds watched.

Executive producer Don Mischer did not return a call seeking comment about the approach that will be taken in next month's show. CBS also declined to comment.

The Emmys isn't the only awards program that has seen its viewership slide and has sought to energize and widen its appeal with new schemes and tactics. In June, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced it was expanding its best picture category from five to 10 films after last year's show drew the lowest ratings for an Oscar telecast.

Executives at the television academy and CBS had hoped to make this year's Emmys a bigger draw by shortening the amount of time spent on the movie and miniseries awards, which are dominated by the cable networks.

Under the plan, announced last month, the academy planned to announce the winners of eight categories 45 minutes before the broadcast began at 5 p.m. PDT. Edited versions of their acceptance speeches would be woven into the program later.

Producers said the move would have saved 12 to 15 minutes of airtime, which they had planned to devote to live entertainment and a look at popular shows such as "American Idol" and "CSI" that get little critical acclaim.

"We're trying to make the Emmys more relevant to mainstream viewers while honoring the choices of the television academy properly and respectfully," Mischer said at the time.

He promised that the pre-taped awards would be "presented with dignity and respect." Footage of the winners walking on and off stage would have been edited, but he said no one would be cut out of the telecast.

But HBO, which has 18 nominations in the eight categories that Mischer proposed to pre-tape, complained that the maneuver would showcase broadcast network programming at the expense of cable's awards.

And the creative guilds strenuously objected to the idea. The Writers Guild of America released a petition signed by 157 television writers and executive producers requesting that the academy retain all the writing categories in the live program. The Directors Guild of America sent the academy a letter saying the change would violate its agreement that the Emmys air live. The Writers Guild took a similar position.

The unions have substantial pull, as they could have yanked the waivers they usually give the academy to air clips without paying licensing fees. Guild officials estimated that could have cost the academy an estimated $500,000.

"We're pleased the academy listened to the writers' concerns," the Writers Guild of America, East, said in a statement Wednesday.

The Writers Guild of America, West, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Directors Guild of America all applauded the decision as well in brief public statements.

Some guild officials said they would welcome the opportunity to help the academy find ways of improving future shows and boosting viewership.

"It's in our interests to make sure that the show is watched and appreciated and the important players in the industry are recognized," said Patric M. Verrone, president of WGA, West. "We're certainly here to consult and collaborate with the academy."

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matea.gold@latimes.com

richard.verrier@latimes.com

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