Emmy or Not to Emmy?

That's been the long, hard decision for TV academy chairman Bryce Zabel

Oct 24, 2001 at 4:00 am
On November 4, some 1,800 television personalities--actors, writers, producers, show-runners, network executives--will, finally, parade into a Los Angeles theater to award their peers and themselves for a job well done. They will, at long last, hand out the golden statues known as Emmy, just as it has been done every year since the award was first presented on January 25, 1949. The casts of The West Wing and The Sopranos, pitted against each other in a who's-better battle long since forgotten about, will pat each other on the back and celebrate not with a cheer, but with a shrug and a sigh of relief. If, of course, the Emmy Awards ceremony even takes place: Twice the event has been scheduled, and twice it has been canceled--first when terrorists took down the World Trade Center and wounded the Pentagon, then when U.S. air strikes began on Afghanistan on October 7. So, by all means, pencil in the date. Just make sure you have an eraser handy.

If--no, when--the Emmy ceremony takes place, no one will be more relieved than Bryce Zabel, who, only a month before the September 11 attacks, was elected chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Zabel was chief among those who decided to postpone the ceremonies on both occasions, and his has been the most visible face during the very public debate over whether to even hold the Emmy telecast this year. He was also part of a group of Hollywood executives summoned last week to meet with White House representatives, including President Bush's deputy assistant Chris Henick, and discuss how "two different cultures were trying to find a common cause," Zabel says.

Most of his predecessors have been household names only in their own homes, but not Zabel, whose name has become synonymous with the frustration that has resulted with the academy's inability to hand out its prestigious doorstops. A television writer and creator of such series as Dark Skies and The Crow, Zabel has, during recent weeks, even been put in the position of having to defend his decision to postpone the ceremony and his determination to hand out the Emmys, war be damned.

"Right now, I just want to accomplish this," Zabel says, as he speeds through L.A. on his way to his daughter's bat mitzvah rehearsal. Since September 11, this is how he lives: Zabel drives from one meeting to another, and always with a network executive, television series writer or journalist speaking to him through a cell phone. "I've put a lot of energy into this, and there have been moments when I doubted how important it was to put that energy into it. I am extraordinarily concerned about the future of my country and children and want to devote resources to that. I will be relieved when it's over."

Over the course of several interviews conducted last week, Zabel outlined just how decisions have been made since September 11; this is the first time he has spoken in such detail about how the Emmys were twice postponed and finally rescheduled. He says the decision to postpone the original ceremony, scheduled for September 16, was easy enough but complicated by the fact the telecast was to fall under the regime of his predecessor, Meryl Marshall-Daniels, who was forced to step down after serving two consecutive terms as the ATAS' chairman and CEO. Zabel and Marshall-Daniels don't have the best of relationships: She ran her own candidate against Zabel during the elections, which were described in the trades as "rancorous." The transition, already "awkward," says Zabel, was further complicated by the decision to postpone.

On September 13, Zabel, ATAS President Jim Chabin and CBS Television President and CEO Les Moonves were forced to choose between two new dates, September 23 or October 7, which is when the 6,000-seat Shrine Auditorium was available. According to one source, Marshall-Daniels--and, for a while, CBS officials--wanted to go forward on September 23, but Zabel says he and Chabin were uncomfortable with the date, as were Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelley, The West Wing's John Wells and HBO Original Programming President Chris Albrecht, who told Zabel and Chabin they wouldn't attend if the Emmys were held on that date. There were some in the TV community who wanted to cancel the show outright. On September 17, Zabel announced the ceremony would take place October 7 and that it would be more somber: Host Ellen DeGeneres' monologue would be replaced by Walter Cronkite's opening remarks. Ditched were black ties, fans lining the red carpet and a comedy sketch prepared by Saturday Night Live cast members. Zabel says there was considerable "hand-wringing" over the show's tone, which was complicated by the somber Heroes tribute, featuring copious actors and musicians, that aired on dozens of networks September 21.

"It's been a constant re-evaluation from the first day, because everyone wanted to do something appropriate, which became the buzzword," Zabel says. "In the first week to two weeks after the attacks, the story line around the nation was the devastation and not, 'Let's go back to work.' We were facing that decision: Must the show go on? I said, 'Not necessarily.' There was a financial consequence to not going on, but it wasn't much of an issue. We looked around and said, 'Can we be helpful? We have this three-hour block and all this money spent on getting a national telecast together. Is there some way to use this platform to be helpful?' It wasn't an immediately answerable question. There's nothing that prepares you for those questions. It's about trusting your gut about what will and won't play, but from the moment of the devastation I found myself on the job."

After security issues were hammered out for what was to have been a bicoastal event (to soothe the fears of East Coast stars who didn't want to fly west), the October 7 date was a go, and during the week prior to the rescheduled ceremony, Zabel felt life returning to a semblance of normalcy; he even attended a handful of nominees' parties, including one sponsored by Entertainment Weekly that Saturday night. "We all knew what was hanging over us," Zabel says, "but everyone said, 'Look, it's been a long, hard row to hoe, and let's all take a deep breath and relax for a moment and get ready for the next day.'" That night, Zabel went to bed feeling confident. "I told my wife, 'We're ready to go.'"

The next morning, he was lacing up his running shoes for a morning jog when one of the ATAS' governors called and told him to turn on the television. He didn't need to. He knew what was happening: Bombs were being dropped on Afghanistan. The show, he figured at that moment, likely would not go on. With three phone lines working, he talked to CBS execs, ATAS board members, nominees, important show-runners. By noon, Zabel and Moonves agreed once more to postpone the Emmys.

Two hours later, he arrived at the Shrine for a hastily called news conference, an event carried live on CNN--where Zabel once worked as a reporter--and E! Entertainment Network. Zabel recalls that even during his days covering presidential elections, he'd never seen a gathering of reporters quite so large; the whole day was, he says with a slight laugh, "an out-of-body experience." After the conference, Zabel, his wife and Jim Chabin stood on the stage and glanced out at the empty Shrine Auditorium. Behind them stood the giant Emmy statue, waiting in vain to greet TV's biggest stars. Zabel looked at his watch. It read 5 o'clock--show time, only there wasn't to be any.

"I realized war and peace is the largest issue we will face, but there was a sense of loss of what normalcy was supposed to be--what extreme times we do live in," Zabel says. "It had a disorienting effect. It was sad."

Then began the second round of discussions: to Emmy or not to Emmy, such as it were. Zabel says he would have canceled if CBS wanted to, but both parties decided to go forward. To give up after two postponements, Zabel says, would have "smacked of defeat," even though some nominees were openly wishing the whole thing would go away. So, on October 16, Zabel and Moonves announced a new date and a new venue, the 1,800-seat Shubert Theater in Century City. The very next day, Moonves and Zabel--along with Warner Bros. President Peter Roth, Sally Field and other network and studio honchos--met with White House officials to discuss ways the entertainment industry could help in the so-called war against terrorism. Zabel insists two things were not discussed: censoring the entertainment industry or the creation of propaganda films.

"We're not being asked to refrain from something, nor were we asked to do something," he says. "It was a meeting about what could be done and a place where we could air opinions on both sides and let the movers and shakers in the entertainment industry put a face with Washington."

Zabel likes to say the past weeks have given him material enough to write a book; he wants only to return to his job as show-runner, to become a "civilian" again, as he puts it. He is tired of being a cheerleader for an awards show taken for granted since its inception in January 1949. He is tired of explaining why it's important for the show to go on at all. He is tired of waiting for an Emmy telecast that seems jinxed. He is tired.

"Not everyone thinks putting the Emmys on TV is important," he says. "Compared to the tragedies that have befallen us, as a TV show it's not important. But I've come to believe what the president and Mayor Giuliani told us: The fabric of America is composed of a lot of little things, and each one contributes to the tapestry of the whole. In the fight against terrorism, even the silliest and least consequential things and things you can live without matter suddenly. We have to hold on to them. We have to embrace them."