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What Future Award Shows Can Learn From the Virtual Emmys

The 2020 Primetime Emmy telecast was the first of Hollywood's major awards ceremonies to have a virtual format, but it's unlikely to be the last.

THE 72ND EMMY® AWARDS - Hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, the "72nd Emmy® Awards" will broadcast SUNDAY, SEPT. 20 (8:00 p.m. EDT/6:00 p.m. MDT/5:00 p.m. PDT), on ABC. (ABC/ABC)JIMMY KIMMEL

Jimmy Kimmel hosts the 72nd Primetime Emmys

ABC

As the first major awards show to go virtual, the 2020 Emmy Awards served as the proverbial canary in Hollywood’s coal mine. With the coronavirus pandemic still wreaking havoc in the United States, including the entertainment industry hub that is Southern California, it’s only a matter of time until other premier awards ceremonies announce plans to shift to virtual spaces.

Creating a virtual awards ceremony that boasts the luster of traditional Hollywood events is no easy task, but whatever events follow in the coming months will be able to learn from the 2020 Emmys. The 2020 Primetime Emmys’ virtual format was well-received by critics — IndieWire’s Ben Travers lauded the show as “technically immaculate” in his review — and though the festivities weren’t without fault, the fact that much of it was live deserves particular praise.

There was always a concern that the Emmys’ virtual format would dull its impact, as winners wouldn’t be able to accept their trophies on stage. So Emmy organizers went to painstaking lengths to ensure that cameras and camera operators were in as many nominee homes, backyards, and hotel rooms as possible on Sunday night. They also hired drivers to deliver trophies to select winners, with the wheel-men and -women decked out in protective hazmat suits designed to look like tuxedos. (This was all explained early in the broadcast via a pre-taped segment sponsored by Kia.)

While this gesture did give the broadcast its traditional shots of winners receiving their Emmys, there were a few kinks — most of which provided further entertainment for those watching at home. Delivery people weren’t informed if they were carrying a winning trophy until a few minutes before they had to hand it over, which led to amusing online reactions from losers as well as the bewildered acceptance shots of most winners. Still, despite claims to the contrary, not all winners received trophies during the ceremony, including Los Angeles-based recipients, which led to confusion for potential honorees. Some nominees who spotted the hazmat-clad driver thought they had won, only to learn live on television they had not, while others who didn’t see anyone outside carrying an Emmy assumed they lost, when they had actually won.

Still, the ceremony itself was undeniably better for having the wild card wackiness of these presenters, as well as the energy of live speeches. The winners might’ve been reporting from home, but many of their acceptance speeches, such as Regina King’s and Zendaya’s, were just as memorable as the best speeches from prior Emmy Awards.

The difference between the live acceptance speeches during the Primetime Emmys and the pre-taped ones throughout the 2020 Creative Arts Emmys — where all nominees pre-recorded speeches that often came off as uniform and unenthusiastic — was night and day.If future awards ceremonies emulate the 2020 Emmys in any way, they’d be wise to avoid pre-taping key segments whenever possible.

In fact, most other aspects of the five Creative Arts Emmy Awards broadcasts can serve as a rubric for what other award shows should not do. While the Primetime Emmys has received critical praise, the Creative Arts Emmys broadcasts, which streamed on YouTube last Monday through Thursday and were followed by a longer ceremony on Saturday that aired via FXX, were subject to criticism throughout the week.

While the Primetime Emmys benefited from live acceptance speeches, not all aspects of award shows need to be live. Saturday’s Creative Arts ceremony featured three major flubs: Ron Cephas Jones won an Emmy for his work on “This Is Us,” but the show’s announcer accidentally named Jason Bateman (“The Outsider”) as the winner. Earlier in the evening, the title card for Outstanding Period and/or Character Hairstyling read “NEED NAMES,” an obvious placeholder. Finally, a card that emphasized Eddie Murphy — who won earlier in the ceremony for “Saturday Night Live” — was shown during Maya Rudolph’s win for her own Guest Actor turn on the show, leading to more confusion.

Mistakes happen and Hollywood award shows are never immune, but all three of the aforementioned issues could’ve been prevented with better planning in advance. Spontaneity is nice for acceptance speeches and stage banter, but there’s little reason to avoid pre-taping other elements if doing so will eliminate room for error.

The Creative Arts Emmys were also perplexingly spread over five days and had to extensively re-use various bits and segments, including the same introduction, In Memoriam video, and host Nicole Byer’s fake COVID awards bit (also sponsored by Kia), to fill the time. And yet, the Creative Arts Emmys also felt rushed as the program quickly moved from category to category, which allowed little time for any acceptance speeches to stand out. Pacing still matters for virtual awards ceremonies and stretching what is traditionally a small event over several days was a confounding decision; sometimes bigger isn’t better.

The moment-to-moment happenings of the 2020 Emmys aside, award ceremony organizers would be keen to avoid the kind of scheduling changes that the Television Academy enacted for the Emmys. Luckily, most other award shows don’t have to deal with as many categories as the Emmys, so they’ll be free to focus on the Primetime ceremony for best practices.

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