If you’re expecting something to go wrong during the Television Academy’s annual Emmy Awards on Sunday night, you’re not alone. Even the broadcast’s executive producers are bracing for it.
“It’s sort of like walking a tightrope, and you know you are not supposed to look down because if you walk a tightrope and you look down, you fall off,” executive producer Ian Stewart told reporters this week. “But you do glance down, and there’s no safety net. What could possibly go wrong?”
The 72nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, airing Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC, represents another major experiment for a television industry hamstrung by continued production challenges brought on by Covid-19. With the usual glitzy in-person gathering of the television industry’s finest infeasible in the midst of a global pandemic, the producers have had to get creative.
The three-hour awards ceremony, which Jimmy Kimmel will host from a small set, will lack the typical red carpet, audience shots and long walks up and down the stage that typically bookend acceptance speeches. Instead, nominees, winners and other special guests will be beamed in virtually from wherever they happen to be, leaving plenty of room for improvisation—and, of course, error. (Some of those special guests include Jason Bateman, Sterling K. Brown, Laverne Cox, Morgan Freeman, Jason Sudeikis and Lin-Manuel Miranda, plus Sesame Street’s Count von Count.)
To make all of the virtual appearances possible, the production team distributed 130 tech kits to those who will appear in the broadcast. Nominees spread across 20 cities and 10 countries around the world have received the setups, which contain laptops outfitted with ring lights, boom mics and high-quality cameras.
The more challenging arrangement is the internet connection required to bring the video and audio to the broadcast. The live appearances will present something of a “logistics nightmare,” and “every single bit” is a challenge, Stewart acknowledged. Producing the ceremony will require juggling 130 feeds and 130 different internet connections through the Sunday night broadcast.
“We are going to essentially be making things up as we go along,” said co-executive producer Reginald Hudlin. “I know that’s not the most reassuring answer, but it’s kind of the truth. We’ve never done this before, and we’ll be able to communicate with each person. If someone happens to have an extraordinary outfit, maybe we’ll have a conversation with him. If someone’s kid suddenly takes control of the mic and they are suddenly the star of the show, we are going to let that happen.”
The chance of a line dropping out at some point in the broadcast is also possible. “It’s not going to work properly all the time,” Stewart said. “It’s just not, and we’ve just got to embrace that.”
Awards shows, long a reliable source of audiences and ad revenue for television networks, have experienced some ratings slumps in recent years, but remotely produced events, catering to those confined at home looking for something to watch, have had some unprecedented successes this year.
ABC’s NFL draft, held virtually and produced remotely for the first time in history, drove double-digit ratings increases for ESPN and ABC. And television—especially streaming television, which commanded most of this year’s Emmys nominations—is having a banner year, as viewers confined to their homes watched programming in record numbers.
The producers say it’s more important than ever to award the best of television in a year where shows have provided audiences with comfort and escape in a grueling and unprecedented year. Despite the constraints of a remotely made show, the producers are also hoping the unconventional setup can deliver a more engaging and genuine program than either pretaped acceptance speeches or more usual awards show tropes could offer audiences.