Emmys 2020: Television Variety Specials Boom as Industry Goes Bust

Welcome contenders, but if you come for the king ("Carpool Karaoke"), you best not miss.
HomeFest: James Corden's Late Late Show Special
"HomeFest: James Corden's Late Late Show Special"

The current method of television consumption couldn’t look more different that it did 60 years ago when the Television Academy first created a category honoring variety specials, but now the tried-and-true TV standard is one of the few ways the medium is keeping itself fresh during the pandemic.

For those of you just coming out of a six-week coma or those individuals looking for more context about the circumstances precipitating this turn of events, this paragraph is for you: As the industry slowly but surely boarded up its doors and windows to try and ride out the ongoing global crisis, network heads, presidents of programming, and ad salespeople were all hard at work trying to figure out a way to create any sort of new content in an attempt to keep the lights on.

With the rise of video conferencing (Thanks, Zoom!) in conjunction with safer-at-home orders across the country, it didn’t take long before the collective realization that it wouldn’t take much effort to cobble together some sort of special by recording video calls with celebrities or having talent film videos of themselves and contribute. Finally, Instagram filters are going to have their moment to shine.

According to the Emmy rules, variety specials are broken down into two possible categories, based on whether they’re live (most awards shows, network musical events) or pre-taped (most concert films, most stand-up). So far the most recent quarantine-spurred specials fall in the former category because of ongoing social distancing requirements.

The earliest specials arrived one after another near the end of last month. “Fox Presents The iHeart Living Room Concert for America” aired on March 29, hosted by Elton John and including performances from Alicia Keys, Camila Cabello, and Billie Eilish. The event raised more than $11 million for two significant charities in the face of the COVID-19 virus, Feeding America and First Responders Children’s Foundation. Hot on its heels, CBS aired “Homefest: James Corden’s Late Late Show Special” on March 30 and included performances by BTS and John Legend. During the special the audience was encouraged to donate funds to The CDC Foundation and Feed America.

More recently, HBO aired “Sesame Street: Elmo’s Playdate” on April 14, a special created to help answer children feel more connected and secure while dealing with the uncertainty of isolation, with special guests including Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anne Hathaway, and Tracee Ellis Ross.

“The Disney Family Singalong”ABC

ABC aired “The Disney Family Singalong” on April 16, and featured performances of classic Disney songs by stars, including Beyoncé singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” and the cast of the original “High School Musical” singing “We’re All In This Together.”

Even amid the murky waters of how to proceed with the FYC season during a pandemic, both CBS and ABC have confirmed they’ll be submitting these specials for Emmy submission.

On April 18, ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as several cable outlets, all aired “One World: Together at Home,” a global special curated in collaboration with Lady Gaga to celebrate and support health care workers around the world and the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization (WHO). The defining celebrity fundraiser of the pandemic so far, it boasted appearances from more than 70 artists including Taylor Swift and The Rolling Stones. The event raised nearly $128 million and was viewed by more than 20 million people.

As for which of these might currently have the edge, history can only offer up a few clues. See, the TV Academy can’t quite settle on how they want to categorize specials, with the live and pre-recorded category designations only being implemented before the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards season in 2018. Before that, it was just Outstanding Variety Special, or Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Special, or Outstanding Variety, Music, or Comedy Program (Special). That said, the trend since 2010 has been clear. If you’re the “Kennedy Center Honors” or a “Carpool Karaoke” special, the odds were in your favor for taking home an Emmy.

In that light, it’s unclear whether or not these potential Emmy hopefuls will make a stir as the eligibility season winds down. The most unique of the bunch, “One World: Together at Home,” might have a slight edge since it was simulcast across so many competing TV outlets and was the most prominent fundraiser. After September 11, the TV Academy embraced “America: A Tribute to Heroes,” which was submitted to the Emmys with a syndication tag, rather than by any one of the networks. It wone the Emmy for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Special. But similar tragedy-spurred events have been overlooked, including two 2005 specials, “Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope” and “A Concert for Hurricane Relief,” both of which aired on NBC networks only.

Regardless of Emmy viability, the variety special trend doesn’t seem like one to die down anytime soon. With relatively fast turnaround, we could see a slew of new competitors popping up all over the schedule as the Emmy eligibility window closes at the end of May. 

Until then, may all of your TV variety be various and your specials, special.

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