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The Emmys Tries to Get its Mojo Back

For the first time in its 60-year history, The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will present an Emmy for outstanding reality host. Also for the first time, the five nominees for that category will be co-hosting when The 60th Primetime Emmy Awards is broadcast on ABC Sept. 21—an idea that Ken Ehrlich, the awards show's executive producer, is happy to take credit for—sorta.

“If it proves to be successful, it's definitely my idea,” he says. “If not, it might have been my wife's idea. It might have been a bad pizza.”

Ehrlich ought to step up—it's an inspired, buzz-worthy choice, and the Emmys could use it. Showcasing popular, personable hosts—Jeff Probst of CBS's Survivor, Howie Mandel of NBC's Deal or No Deal, Tom Bergeron of ABC's Dancing With the Stars, Heidi Klum of Bravo's Project Runway and last year's Emmy host, Ryan Seacrest of Fox's American Idol—is exactly what the Emmys need to draw a crowd, which they've had much trouble doing lately.

Ehrlich is understandably counting on the reality hosts' name recognition. But in a competitive, unpredictable TV world where buzz matters more than ever, the Emmys really has a chance to draw some heat from, of all things, a series viewed by fewer than 1 million viewers its first season, the one that got it nominated: AMC's Mad Men, which leads all comers with 16 nominations.

While the show only has the reach of a low-rated primetime offering on Univision, it possesses the kind of caché the Emmys should try to tap into to bust out of the staid awards show mold. With tired, typical fare not doing the trick, this year's show begs the option of tweaking the formula. Imagine fewer time-gobbling montages that must have been fun to put together in the editing room, but add little to the proceedings. Or fewer musical performances—at the Emmys, they make less sense than at other awards shows. Or even less reminiscing and more—and longer—introductory clips of lesser-known shows.

With that in mind, Emmy and Mad Men could be perfect bedfellows. Mad Men is up for the top prize of Best Drama Series, in a fun, competitive field against, among others, ratings-winning stalwarts such as ABC's Lost and Fox's House, and FX's Damages and Showtime's dark and compelling Dexter. And if it wins, few faces would soak in the spotlight quite like Jon Hamm, who's up for a Best Actor in a Drama Series Emmy as the series' centerpiece, Don Draper.

A win by Mad Men or Hamm would help the Emmys do one of the things it does best: help break new shows on the verge of bigger ratings. Granted, with basic cable fare dominating the nominations as never before, there are fewer big-rated series to bring in the larger rooting crowd. But the competition between hot and more established choices will be one of many good storylines that could bring viewers to the night. And the Emmys could use all the help it can get.

By choosing his five reality hosts, Ehrlich is thinking outside the box because drawing viewers to the box for the Emmys has proved difficult. Last year, the show brought in 13.1 million viewers, among the smallest audiences ever for the show, and well below the 16.2 million who tuned in for the 2006 awards, continuing a recent downward ratings spiral.

The Emmys aren't alone in facing tough awards-show challenges. Audiences are so fragmented, and distribution systems are evolving so quickly, that it's become harder than ever to craft a glitzy TV special that will please fans of both Two and a Half Men and Mad Men. Oddly enough, the Emmys can take some heart from MTV's recent Video Music Awards, which brought in 8.4 million viewers, a 19% climb over 2007, and 46% higher than 2006's all-time low number. The two straight years of ratings bumps came, of course, on the high heels of show-opener Britney Spears. (Perhaps that's all Ehrlich needs for the Emmys: an appearance by Britney.)

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Chairman John Shaffner, who is also the show's production designer, doesn't believe it's time to panic just yet. “Understanding awards-show ratings is more complicated than, oh, the number was down,” he says. “When [the Emmys show] was up against [Sunday Night Football] last year, it came in No. 2 for the week. So aside from football, it was the best place to be seen that week [for advertisers]. What's more, numbers for everything across the board are down, so it's all relative.”

But the numbers do imply that the Emmys could use a face lift. For the show to work in 2008, it has to find a way to please, and inform, people who aren't necessarily watching the nominated shows, and to give them an instant vested interest. The Tonys certainly manages these tasks, presenting performances from nominated shows so folks at home, even if they've never been to Broadway, can get a feel for what the fuss is about.

More so than the Oscars, the Grammys or the VMAs, the Emmys must adapt to new times; neither the audience nor the programming is what it used to be. The show was all glitz and glamour when made-for-TV movies and miniseries were among the most-viewed programs on the planet, and when the top-rated shows on TV could pull in a massive 40 to 50 share. The show also faces a challenge that other awards don't: It has a tendency to honor the same people year after year. And while the orchestra still creeps in when dramatic thank-yous get too long, it's never there to save us from the tired, jokey banter of presenters.

So, after years of tweaking with nomination formats and hoping for the best, the Emmys has a chance to showcase and shine this year in premier competition categories alone. For Outstanding Comedy Series, you have one old-fashioned network sitcom hit, Two and a Half Men, and four superior shows that are either ratings-challenged or come from cable: NBC's The Office and 30 Rock, and HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage. Also, the show will be held for the first time at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, which will give it a new look.

But as the Emmys turns 60, what else must be done to make it less musty and more must-see? How do you make the show relevant and interesting to today's TV audience, and to tomorrow's?

Ehrlich is keeping some cards close to his vest as far as plans for the evening, but he'd like the proceedings to be more fluid. “We try not to have any rules for these shows,” he says. “There may be a plan, but there are no rules.”

Ehrlich has lots of experience in flying live with and without a net, especially through years at the Grammy Awards. He's the guy who conceived of, and pulled off, such unforgettable pairings as Prince and Beyoncé to open one show, and a temporarily reunited Simon & Garfunkel to open another.

But he's also served as executive producer of the past four Emmy telecasts. To draw traditional viewers and drive new ones, and to honor the past and the present in a pleasing way, Ehrlich has a delicate balancing act to perform.

Ehrlich believes in using show clips but adds, “Some categories, we'll have longer ones than others. My overall kind of approach is that these [award] shows are more about the moment than they are about the clips. If I'm guilty of anything, one of the things is that I tend to shortcut the clips a little bit. It's only because I think people are tuning in to see the actors and actresses live, in person—they either hope they'll be funny or touching, or screw it up.”

That kind of unpredictability has made the Golden Globes worth watching for several years. But it's something that is hard to bring about when the orchestra is cutting off acceptances of the later, high-profile awards.

“There are a lot of awards in this show,” Ehrlich says, acknowledging the challenge. “And you usually wind up at the point where, because the object here is to cross the finish line at the right time, you don't have much of a choice but to try and help people along,” he says, closing with a chuckle.

And Ehrlich still believes a fun musical number adds flair to the Emmys. “I don't know how much I know about a lot of things, but I think I know a lot about music,” he says. “And I think I know what will touch different audiences with different things.”

Under Ehrlich, the Emmys have paired Black-Eyed Peas and Earth, Wind & Fire, and run an “Emmy Idol” number, featuring the always-welcome vocal stylings of William Shatner. “Last year, we did Tony Bennett and Christina Aguilera, and we also did the Jersey Boys tribute to The Sopranos, which everybody loved.

“This year, it's the 60th anniversary of the Emmys,” he says. “We have the lovely Josh Groban, who's going to do a medley of great television theme songs over the years. But I promise you, it will not be what you expect. And we've got something else up our sleeves on this one,” he adds. “I'm very excited about it.”

Groban and others performing themes to The Andy Griffith Show, Friends, The Simpsons and The Brady Bunch could actually strike a fun balance. But Ehrlich's key phrase—“not what you expect”—might be the real answer to whether this is the year the Emmy Awards breaks out of its ratings slump.