A weird, virtual, socially distant Emmy Awards show nets ABC a little gold statuette

So many things could have gone wrong. ABC figured out a way to make it mostly go right.

Some view the Golden Globes in January as the official kick off to awards season, but I’ve always considered it the Emmys. 

I’m tired while writing this, and trying to think of a word that sums up just how odd but charming this year’s show was. All I can think of is …huh! Host Jimmy Kimmel and a smattering of presenters set up camp at a Los Angeles studios while camera crews in different areas around the world found their way to nominees homes to record the winner’s live reactions. Emmys co-producer Ian Stewart described the technical set up as “trying to watch 130 sports matches at the same time,” with feeds coming in from 125 different locations in 20 cities and approximately 10 countries. 

Even in an unprecedented time of strangeness, when the concept of packing a theater to hand out golden statuettes for acting is less than ideal, the show must go on. For Disney-owned ABC, pulling it off was first and foremost, but setting a precedent for award shows in the months to come was also paramount. Not only will the Emmys influence other award shows and virtual events of this magnitude, but they might help breathe new life into a category of entertainment that’s faced declining ratings and concerns over relevancy for years.

Let’s address the biggest question dangling over Tinsel Town: did they pull it off?

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Yes. Every critic will have their own opinion, but the show struck the right balance of consistently acknowledging the offbeat, peculiar situation this year’s awards found themselves in and then trying to make the best of it through sponsored sketches (congratulations to ABC for getting that Kia money) and Zoom-based jokes. There were things that didn’t work. Opening the show with audience clips of award shows past was jarring and unsettling, jokes fell flat without the in-real laughter, there were tech issues that everyone was anticipating, and three hours felt much longer than usual.

Despite all of those issues, the show found ways to make Zoom work to its advantage and produce a charming few hours of television. So, overall, the Emmys were worth tuning into. The question is was the novelty of this year’s awards enough for more than 6.9 million people to tune into?

By the time you’re reading this, ratings for the show will likely be out but they’re not available right now, when I’m sitting down to write this week’s newsletter. I don’t know if the pandemic-special show will be intriguing enough for people to tune into — enough to beat last year’s record-low 6.9 million viewers. If I had to guess, I imagine that a lack of entertainment (outside Sunday Night Football) and an interest in the novel setup will lead to a slightly increased audience turnout. 

The Emmys, however, still face issues that the Emmys have faced for years — the highest percentage of people who are interested in watching the Emmys are north of 50. That also happens to be the same group of consumers not dashing to subscribe to every new streaming service. Therefore, the more that the Emmys celebrates titles on streaming services that people in the award show’s core demographic audience aren’t even aren’t even aware of, the more unlikely they are to tune into see who won. Maybe you and I love The Mandalorian, but there are a good number of people sitting at home watching the Emmys and thinking, “Who is this strange green frog?”

Here’s the thing; it’s not just the Emmys. The Golden Globes, Oscars, and Grammys are all in the same boat. The Oscars saw a record low 23.6 million viewers this past February on ABC, just one year after an uptick in viewers that was brought on by interest in the first Oscars without a host in more than two decades. The power of novelty in action! The Golden Globes, which aired on NBC, also saw a ratings dip this year, averaging 18.3 million viewers, hitting an eight-year low. The Grammys also fell, seeing 18.7 million viewers and a 3% drop in the key 18-49 year old demographic. Simply put, things are still slipping for the major award shows, but this year could see the showrunners use their biggest disadvantages to the networks’ advantages. 

Like the first dog shot into space, the Emmys will be watched by producers on other award shows to see what worked and what didn’t. Fortunately, the Emmys producers, Reginald Hedlund and Ian Stewart, have other dogs to look at. Audiences are used to virtual events by now. They know what works (DC FanDome, ABC’s Disney Sing-Along, incorporation of fans into the NBA Bubble), and they know what doesn’t (San Diego Comic-Con). 

“We've watched all of the other virtual programming that's been happening since March of this year, and we've seen the evolution and the improvements,” Hedlund said during a pre-Emmys press conference.

Everything that went right and everything that went wrong will be improved on. Award shows have the potential not only to be relevant again to people under the age of 50, but to rework the entire idea of what an award show could be. It’s been mostly the same for decades; celebrities packed into a theater as awards are presented throughout the night. Applause, presentation, joke, applause, commercial break; and repeat. The Emmys, and ABC as the network carrying the first major award show of the new season, can figure out what happens next to an annual event that isn’t going away. 

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Next year’s Golden Globes are scheduled for February 21st (the Oscars originally held the spot), with the Oscars following suit in April. By then, people might be able to get back together. It’s more than likely they won’t — not the way that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy will need in order to host events as they normally would.

Tonight’s Emmys, however, and the technical display that ABC demonstrated will work, is enough to start reimagining how the Globes and the Oscars need to evolve. Those two events are usually big draws (even with ratings lows) for networks. All networks have is special events, sports, and a regular TV lineup. Football will be over by the time both awards shows air, and the status of regularly programmed television is up in the air. Mega award shows, even virtual, become some of the only appointment television. 

Network television is still grappling with its current reality — one that will likely stretch into the spring and summer of next year. Filming is starting to come back up, but most of it is happening internationally; Canada, Australia, parts of Europe, and New Zealand. Los Angeles and New York City are still facing troubles. Trying to fill a slate of television for the fall and beyond will remain a constant struggle. Gently used programming from international territories will act as a bandaid, but having new entertainment for people to tune into is still the best way for networks to sell advertising spots and bring audiences in. 

I’ve talked a lot in this newsletter, as many, many, many other people have elsewhere, about the effects this period of unprecedented acceleration will bring. More people will transition to working remotely more often; some industries already in rapid decline will fall while others just born will skyrocket; the powerful will become more powerful as the economic divide grows. There are dozens of macro trends emerging that many of us are watching intently. In the entertainment industry, there are questions about network television’s future. 

It’s not like network TV is going to go away. Bob Chapek isn’t suddenly going to announce that Disney is done with ABC, but from a value proposition to consumers, what does network TV, outside of sports and news, give the average viewer? It’s not better TV shows or movies; premium cable took care of that more than two decades ago. It’s not convenience; streaming wins there. It’s not even innovative storytelling or creating something that people enjoy as a group; the video game industry has been better in both those areas for several years. 

The answer is in reborn spectacle on a mass level; something that only a network like ABC can accomplish with its easy accessibility and reach into American homes. Something that people are interested in, have access to for a low cost, and makes them feel like they’re with others even when they’re not — something experienced as a collective has never been more important, and opportunities for it to be done well are so rare. 

The Emmys and the Oscars, both of which have aired on ABC and will continue to air on ABC on some level in the future, can become events that bring in more than 18 million people, and more people within the 18-49 age group. They can become events that generate even more advertising revenue (by selling at a higher price). They can become win-win events for both the network, in this case ABC, and people at home who love award shows, but want award shows to be better. I should know. I am said people. It requires innovation and a push to try something new. That’s what’s happening now.

Tonight’s Emmy awards weren’t perfect. Still, they figured it out. They found a way to give us three hours of new entertainment that we could experience together. Maybe award shows seem dumb right now when people are fighting a pandemic, and maybe the Emmys aren’t worthy of 1,500 words about what this means for us, and the television networks, and entertainment as a whole. Maybe. I choose to believe that when done well, entertainment has the ability to acknowledge point blank the bleakness of it all while giving us a moment of reprieve. It’s something that Hedlund said that I’m still thinking about now. 

“One of the things that television does great is be immediate and talk about what's happening,” he said. “So much of what we know, whether it's the pandemic, whether it's the fight for social justice, whether it's the ecological challenge of the fires here on the West Coast, television is how we know about these things. Television brings us together.  So it would be dishonest, it would be a failure of us if we didn't address all of those things in a show about television.  The challenge and the opportunity is to talk about those things not in a preachy way, not in a talking‑down way, but honestly and hopefully not only just entertaining, but enlightening and inspiring.”

Studios

  • Third-party Mulan numbers* are in and...they’re not great. Even worse is how many people signed up for Disney+ to watch Mulan. Here are some graphs from Antenna, one of my go-to analytics firms for understanding streaming, the media industry, and Disney. Notice: people who had Disney+ did spend additional money to get Mulan, but Mulan did not drive subscribers the way Hamilton did. The big question is whether or not Mulan will keep people from canceling. We’ll see. (Antenna Analytics

    *This is technically both a Streaming and Studios story, but I’m grouping it under Studios for now.

Streaming

  • A trailer for Marvel Studios’ first big Disney+ show (that was supposed to be Falcon and the Winter Soldier, but alas) WandaVision arrived during the Emmys. I’m all in on this show and I can’t wait to laugh and cry! (YouTube)

  • Disney’s big investors day that will give people a look at the future of its streaming services is happening on October 7th. The event will be hosted on LiveStorm, according to an update from the teleconference company. (LiveStorm

  • Disney+ is now an Emmy award winning streaming service! The Mandalorian netted the streamer several Creative Emmy Awards in the week leading up to the Primetime Emmys. (Creative Emmys)

  • And speaking of The Mandalorian, the first trailer for the show’s second season has dropped. More Baby Yoda! More Pablo Pascal! More all of it, and soon! The second season drops on October 30th. (Star Wars)

  • Could Soul go to Disney+? That’s the latest rumor. While it seems like Black Widow likely won’t get the Mulan to Disney+ treatment, Soul just might, according to Variety. (Variety)

  • Disney confirmed that WandaVision is still scheduled to be released this year. The company announced the Disney+ inclusion as part of a “what’s to come” press release, including in the official video sizzle reel. No word on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, though. (YouTube)

  • As Marvel Studios starts to find its footing on Disney+, the studio has apparently signed Orphan Black star and Canadian actor extraordinaire Tatiana Maslany into the role of Jenifer Walters, aka She-Hulk. It’s unclear when production will kick off, but maybe Disney will start filming in Toronto (where Maslany has spent the majority of her career). On a personal note, as a fan of both Jennifer Walters, a Canadian, and Maslany, I am stoked! (Deadline)

Parks

  • Kevin Potoock, the new head of Disneyland (not Disney Parks as a whole, the position once held by current Disney CEO Bob Chake) has gone on the record to talk about the “disappointing” results Disneyland has seen...as part of the state of California’s guidance. Potrock told the OC Reigster that the company was “disappointed with the state’s lack of progress in providing the industry with guidance and clarity on reopening.” The park hasn’t been able to open beyond shops and restaurants, greatly impacting business. (OC Register)

  •  Relatedly, California governor Gavin Newsom told press more announcements about large spaces like theme parks, like Disneyland, reopening are coming in the days ahead. Newsom told press in a press conference last week that “we are actively working in a number of sectors and we’ll be making public the fruits of those negotiations and those efforts very very shortly.” (OC Register

  • Disney’s cruise division has extended cancelations through mid-December in a move that no one should find shocking. There isn’t too much more information, but people looking to get onto a Disney cruise (and really, who are you?) shouldn’t expect to before 2021. (Disney Cruises)

  • NBA Bubble update: The NBA is partnering with some restaurants in Orlando, the majority of which are Black- and Latinx-owned. The goal is to help sustain local businesses while also giving the players a chance to eat something outside of what Disney World has provided. Sports Illustrated has more of the details. (Sports Illustrated)

Media Networks

  • Erin Brokovich’s legacy lives! ABC has ordered a series based on the activist (made famous by Julia Roberts in the 2000 film Erin Brokovich) straight to series. Rebel is inspired by the life of Brokovich today, and will follow “Annie "Rebel" Bello is a blue-collar legal advocate without a law degree. She's a funny, messy, brilliant and fearless woman who cares desperately about the causes she fights for and the people she loves. When Rebel applies herself to a fight she believes in, she will win at almost any cost.” (The Futon Critic)