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Shaffner Sees Big Emmys Ratings

You'll have to forgive Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Chairman/CEO John Shaffner if he sounds a little giddy these days. That's because the 62nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards telecast on Aug. 29, airing live on the East and West coasts, has the makings of a hit.

This year's Emmy class harks back to a time before audiences splintered across the consumption landscape; in those days, shows like ER, Friends and NYPD Blue scooped up top honors with easy regularity. Later, though, with the emergence of truly distinctive television on premium (Sopranos, Sex and the City) and ad-supported (Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Damages) cable, a conundrum of inverse proportions emerged for the Emmy telecast: The shows with the smallest audiences were getting the biggest awards.

That's fine for the cause of artistic integrity, not so good for the Emmycast's ratings. This year, however, broad-appeal broadcast TV, from Glee and Modern Family to The Good Wife, is giving the free-TV industry a new lease on life and the awards season. And while no one is suggesting ballot-tampering to juice a flagging kudocast-or pumping up license fees for the next round of Emmy TV contracts-top-rated shows taking home top awards can only be a good thing for NBC's Emmys program.

"The membership of the Academy pretty much gets it," says Shaffner, also an Emmy-winning production designer. "It's part of our business to watch as much [television] as possible because we're all looking over our shoulders to see who's doing what. We're a relatively self-aware community. But it doesn't always mean that we're 100% percent in tune with the national audience. We're continually trying to build on being relevant simultaneously to both the community and to our audience. And I think this year we were pretty good."

Last year's Emmycast, hosted by the affable Neil Patrick Harris, was watched by more than 13 million viewers, a bump of 8% compared to a ratings nadir in 2008, when hosting duties were shared among reality hosts. And the 2009 telecast, which aired Sept. 20 on CBS, also had to compete with a marquee football game on NBC, opening day for the Dallas Cowboys against the New York Giants. This year, the awards will be broadcast on Aug. 29, actually moved up to avoid an NFL conflict on NBC.

"Let's face it, the thing that has eroded the Emmy telecast more than anything else has been football," Shaffner points out. "As much as we like to say it's sports and it's for men, [football] really has reached a level where many [other] Americans watch it. I mean, my mother in her old age loved to watch football. It's become multi-generational and cross-gender. And these enormous football games show up on the same night [as the Emmys]."

But Emmycast producers also managed to give last year's telecast more cohesion and flow by dividing it into genre segments and accompanying clip packages to remind viewers how good television can be. This year's telecast, which is hosted by Late Night's Jimmy Fallon, will take the same approach.

"The audience likes to tune in to be reminded what they love and to also be reminded of things that they've missed," Shaffner asserts. "We're going to continue with the concept this year of doing a greater review of the year in television so that [the Emmycast] can be an opportunity for people to come together. It's a cultural pause where we collectively look at the state of television."

And perhaps conceding to the invasiveness of social networks and mobile news applications that serve as virtual megaphones, the Emmys will air live coast-to-coast. It will be the first time since the mid-1970s that the show will not be broadcast on a tape delay in the West.

"It's more immediate. We all get to share the same thing at the same time. I think it's unifying," Shaffner says. "I'm warning everybody in California to take your modular device to the beach and put on some sunscreen."