Published September 16, 2011
There's more than Hollywood ego on the line at Sunday's 63rd prime-time Emmys. After disappointing performances by a pair of major trophy fests this year, the TV ceremony could prove an awards season reboot.
For producer Mark Burnett, the successful reality TV czar ("Survivor," ''The Apprentice") who is tackling his first big awards show, it's a chance to play hero or risk being the goat.
He can't take any cues from the double thud that marred the 2011 season. Ricky Gervais confused the Golden Globes with a barbed, Charlie Sheen-style roast, and ill-matched Academy Award hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway turned the industry's most glamorous night into amateur hour.
"Everybody's eyes are going to be on the Emmys because there was so much backlash" after the Oscars and Globes, said Matt Whitfield, features editor for Yahoo Entertainment.
Eyes will also be on Burnett, who moves to the Emmys (airing 8 p.m. EDT Sunday on Fox) after producing the freewheeling MTV Movie Awards for five years and the carefully mainstream People's Choice Awards, which he'll be handling again for the third year.
Burnett follows veteran producer Don Mischer, whose multiple Emmy ceremonies include 2010's critically lauded version that was hosted by Jimmy Fallon and featured a sparkling song-and-dance number with the "Glee" cast, Tina Fey and other stars.
Even good enough can be difficult to achieve. The 2008 awards tried to honor reality TV by gathering five of the genre's hosts, including such adroit pros as Ryan Seacrest of "American Idol" and Tom Bergeron of "Dancing With the Stars," to share the emcee job. The quintet collectively botched it.
Burnett, who brushed aside questions about calling on his reality roots for the Emmys, said he was ready for the challenge and has approached it with deep respect.
"It's a big honor," he said. "It's a very important show within the industry and, having previously been on the stage and won, I know what it feels like."
It's certainly far from MTV Movie Awards territory, which boasts such impudent categories as "best kiss" and "biggest badass star," and which Burnett treated in kind. At the 2009 edition, one scripted bit had Sacha Baron Cohen, playing his outlandish character Bruno, put his bare behind in Eminem's face.
On Emmy night, in contrast, the prestige series "Mad Men" is in the running for its fourth consecutive best drama trophy and Oscar-winning heavyweights including Kate Winslet, Maggie Smith, William Hurt and Melissa Leo are competing for acting honors. The comedy boundaries are inevitably tighter.
Burnett "may try to push the envelope a little, but I don't think it's his priority or where he will find the most success," said Whitfield.
Distributing a long list of awards is the business at hand, but viewers tune in for stars and entertainment. Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, Sofia Vergara and Julianna Margulies are among the presenters, and Burnett said he hopes to replicate last year's "fun vibe," with a "great opening" to the show, "fun short films and some great moments on stage."
He noted he has a few more minutes to play with because the TV academy this year combined the categories of made-for-TV movies and miniseries.
Prying for ceremony details yields little more, as awards producers traditionally value the element of surprise. At least the identity of the host, a key part of the show's promotional arsenal, can't be kept under wraps.
Burnett's choice was Jane Lynch, who stars in "Glee" as power-hungry high school cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, a role for which the actress won an Emmy last year and is nominated again this year. She is also a stalwart member of Christopher Guest's improv-savvy troupe of performers, who have dazzled in films including "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind."
"I was very fortunate that Jane said yes. She's so talented," Burnett said.
Speaking to reporters in August, Lynch said she'd like to include a musical number such as last year's highlight. She also wants to be ready to react to unplanned moments, she said, citing her admiration for the skillful running gag that 1992 Oscar host Billy Crystal made out of winner Jack Palance's on-stage display of one-armed pushups.
One scripted moment is the "in memoriam" Emmy segment paying tribute to TV stars and other industry members who have died. It's an awards show element that can be difficult to handle, with producers facing criticism for everything from the accompanying music to those people who were omitted.
Burnett had a minor pre-show stumble, telling the Television Critics Association that he would shape the tribute differently, adding, "I think 'in memoriam' doesn't need to be a bummer."
That drew some gasps and laughter from reporters. Burnett, clarifying, said the segment can be "a celebration of what was left behind, because the one thing about working in this business and creating art that lives on is when you're gone, people still enjoy your work."
His work on the Emmys will be judged by its reviews and its ratings, which have been a persistent weak spot for the TV awards. Although the ceremony rebounded from its all-time viewership low of 12.3 million in 2008 by adding another million viewers in 2009, last year's show rose only slightly, to 13.47 million.
The Oscars, which had been on a ratings upswing but faltered last year, enlisted filmmaker Brett Ratner (the "Rush Hour" series, "X-Men: The Last Stand") to co-produce the next ceremony with Mischer. Eddie Murphy is the host.
Ratner, like Burnett, will be making his debut in the majors. The Emmys will find out first if a fresh perspective pays off.