Awards Guru Girds for Battle

Despite some important rule changes, the nominations for the 2009 Emmy Awards sparked few surprises when they were announced July 16. And the ceremony's Sept. 20 telecast is scheduled to go head-to-head with NBC's Sunday night NFL matchup between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.

So, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has some hurdles to surmount as it strives to deliver a kudofest on CBS that will redeem last year's multi-host debacle. ATAS also hopes to prove the Emmys' worth as a televised property; the show's current deal expires after the 2010 telecast on NBC.

John Leverence, ATAS' senior VP for awards, talks to B&C's Marisa Guthrie about his expectations for this year's program, the impact of dark themes among drama contenders, and whether the next round of rule changes will include merging the movie and miniseries categories. An edited transcript follows.

Having reality show hosts share hosting duties was widely criticized last year. Is there added pressure to make this year's show a success?

There are things that are beyond the control of the Academy and CBS and the gods; the NBC football game is bringing together two of America's [top] teams right up against the Emmy Awards. I think there's room for people who love football and there's room for people who love the Emmys, and God bless 'em all. But there's a very, very strong indication that we are up against a massive ratings juggernaut in that game.

There is a general uptick in awards ceremonies [viewership]. So maybe that's a tide that raises all ships.

It's definitely our desire and CBS' desire and I think the industry's desire that [the Emmys] live long and prosper. I hope that happens. I don't think it's in anyone's interest or benefit for the Emmys to fail.

What themes are emerging from the nominees this year?

You have Bryan Cranston's character in Breaking Bad; there's real confusion about who this guy is. He's playing this role as a family man. But on the other hand, he's a drug dealer playing the role of a family man and high school teacher. You have the same kind of confusion with Michael C. Hall [in Dexter]. He's either a mass murderer playing a responsible guy who works for the cops, or a guy who works for the cops who is playing a mass murderer. The situation extends over to Jon Hamm in Mad Men. Don Draper is not really Don Draper; he's some other guy who grabbed Don Draper's [dog] tags.

The center does not hold for [most of] these characters. You're presenting people who are in horrible distress. It's a sort of schizophrenia that is very descriptive of what's going on in this country. You have the same schizophrenia when you look at Goldman Sachs' stock price and unemployment levels. I think you have the same kind of schizophrenia when you look at the reality of Judge [Sonia] Sotomayor and the zeroing in that you had by the Republicans. If there is any trend, it's one of schizophrenia.

Thank goodness we have that cheerful Neil Patrick Harris to host.

Absolutely; it's one of those situations where Lucifer is the morning star. If you were to have one of these other characters who are weighted down by the angst of this ripping-apart-at-the-seams sort of role, it might a little bit difficult.

Could this gloom and doom and the fact that many top series nominees don't have large audiences be bad for the telecast?

There is an audience, not terribly huge, for Breaking Bad and Flight of the Conchords and Mad Men. But if you add up all of those different constituencies, and each one has a passionate rooting interest in the show, then you might in aggregate have a pretty good-size audience. On the other hand, you have highly rated programs such as Lost or House or The Office. If you aggregate all of these various niches, perhaps it adds up. So in that respect, it very well might be that our audience will not so much be a mass audience as a congregation of niche audiences.

Harris is credited with giving the Tonys a shot in the arm.

Just because Neil is going to be there, you're going to get a certain amount of tune-in firepower. You have two things going on with a host. You have tune-in, and you have stay-tuned-in. I think what Neil brought to the Tonys and certainly How I Met Your Mother is a tune-in factor. I think his wonderful wit and ability to entertain will bring a very high stay-tuned-in factor.

There has been some talk of merging the movie and miniseries categories due to the dearth of miniseries contenders. Is that going to happen?

That has been an ongoing discussion for a number of years. If you were to have a competition in the program area between the minis and the movies, you would have an apples versus oranges [comparison]. So there is a reluctance to pit [movies and minis] in a head-to-head competition in which you are looking for the judges to rank one thing against the other.

If you're doing something with, say, the sound mixing, you'll be able to sort it out because it's an overall achievement. But with a miniseries, one particular episode does not have a beginning, middle and end; it does not have the gravitas of a completed thing. These are entertaining television programs, but they're also aesthetic entities. And an aesthetic entity, in order to be whole, has to have some sort of conclusion.

So bottom line, you're not going to merge the categories?

That is the prevailing logic in the Board of Governors and on the awards committee. I'm not saying that the pendulum is not going to swing the other way. And I'm not saying that there won't be some way to figure out how to pit these things [against each other], or to set up some sort of a judging system where you do not ask them to be ranked; then maybe you would be able to bring them together. But in the current situation, in our category system where voters have to rank them one against the other, it's not happening.

Will we see the Emmy for best reality competition host on the telecast this year? It was presented last year for the first time, but I’m assuming that was because of who was hosting.

I do not know. There is precedent [from last year]. It’s a very attractive category in a lot of ways. I think you have to make a separation between the category and the worth of the category as part of the telecast.

Might we see some sort of viewer-participation component in the future in a bid to generate buzz?

The basic structure of the Emmy Awards is that they are given by industry professionals to honor excellence within the industry. With that basic premise—which is sort of the flip side of The People’s Choice Awards—I doubt very seriously that there’s going to be a migration from one side to the other. It very well may be that you [could] have some quirky things like Best Villain or Best Sex Scene; I’m sure [the latter] would go to True Blood because they spend 90 % of the time in the sack.

But let’s just say for the purpose of argument that you had something completely different from anything the Emmys have done. It very well may be that during the course of a show, there’s an Internet vote or something. But it would clearly be separated from any industry recognition.

I can’t ever see that you would have a home voters’ choice for Best Drama Series, and then we would announce what was voted on by the industry. I mean, that would be suicide. You would just have this absolutely inappropriate confluence of expert and popular votes. And if you do have something like that coming into the show, you really have to make certain that it bears no relationship to anything your industry awards are doing.

Best Sex Scene, that’s great. The American public can probably do a better job of [judging] that than the fogies that work in the TV business.

Will Neil Patrick Harris sing? Something from Dr. Horrible, perhaps?

He’s got it on his plate. He can certainly deliver it up. I’m not certain exactly how they’re going to utilize his many opportunities to entertain.

Do you take a rooting interest in your favorite programs? Can you remain objective?

It’s [like saying] which one of your children you love the best or hate the most. Last year with Bryan Cranston winning, I’m a big fan of Breaking Bad and I was very pleased to see Bryan come through. He had been shut out for years and years on Malcolm in the Middle. It was really nice to see somebody who was a journeyman who had shown his ability to go from a wacky comedic persona into this kind of grim situation, which showed an extraordinary range of ability. For all of those reasons, that was really an amazing win. Sometimes, things like that just jump out at you. It’s gratifying to see something like that. And that’s what the Emmys are all about.