When Frank Scherma was elected as chairman and CEO of the Television Academy three years ago, he came to office with grand plans to reform the organization. What he didn’t plan on was a global pandemic interrupting that focus.
That’s why, as Scherma confirmed to Variety on Wednesday morning, he plans to run for re-election in November in a bid to continue as chairman/CEO for another two-year term. (The Academy extended the terms of its board by a year due to COVID-19, but there will be an election in November for a new board term starting in January 2022.)
Scherma and TV Academy president Maury McIntyre spoke to Variety at the Television Academy’s North Hollywood headquarters, as part of a preview for this Sunday’s Primetime Emmys telecast.
“There was a lot that the Board of Governors and myself and Maury and the team wanted to accomplish,” Scherma said of his tenure. “It’s harder to accomplish on Zooms than all of us sitting face to face and getting through stuff — between the diversity and equity inclusion issues, all the things that we’re trying to do as an Academy. I still see there’s a lot that we want to do over the next two-and-a-half years. And I want to do that and get that done. And then I can sort of leave in peace.”
As host Cedric the Entertainer and executive producers Reggie Hudlin and Done+Dusted’s Ian Stewart offered some new information about this year’s ceremony — held inside a tent at downtown’s L.A. Live events deck — Scherma and McIntyre also elaborated on how the COVID-compliant event would function.
For one thing, there will be several shows that hold satellite events that the telecast will cut to when necessary. That includes the cast and producers of Netflix’s “The Crown,” which will hold their own mini-Emmy ceremony (much like “Schitt’s Creek” did last year) in London.
“Reggie Hudlin has been talking with Netflix about that, that all of ‘The Crown’ nominees in London are in the same location,” McIntyre said. “We provided them similar artwork so that the production kind of feels the same. And so if we cut to them, you will see that I believe it’s Gillian and Emma Corrin and Olivia Colman and the whole the directing team and the writing team, they’re all there together.”
Other shows that will be video conferencing in from remote locations include “Top Chef” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Some of that is because of logistics, but the TV Academy is also very aware of ongoing concerns about COVID safety. And they clearly saw “Friends” star Jennifer Aniston’s appearance on “Kimmel” the other night, when she announced that she wouldn’t attend the ceremony (she and her castmates are up for the “Friends” reunion special) because of safety concerns.
“We do have some people wanting to dial in, and we understand that,” said McIntyre, who pointed out that Aniston did appear in person on last year’s socially distanced show. “Fortunately, I think you are seeing a cessation of some of the virulence of the virus here in LA. We pray that it continues. It’s only about 500 in the tent, but 500 is still a lot for some people. So I think we all recognize that.”
Added Scherma: “That’s their right. [But] we were making it as safe as possible. What we’re creating is, the entire group is going to be Zone A. So everybody’s tested, everybody’s wearing masks when they’re not on camera, everybody has been vaccinated. So everybody’s very much used to that on sets. They know what Zone A is. And they know, OK, when we’re not shooting, put up your mask. So as long as we keep those protocols, then everybody should be very safe.”
That mask protocol is in line with how last weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys were handled: When attendees are on camera, including walking the red carpet or when the show is live, they can be unmasked. After leaving the carpet, it’s masks back on until cameras roll in the tent. When the Emmys go to commercial, producers will ask audience members to put their masks back on.
“We’ve worked with L.A. County Health to develop a plan, which they’ve agreed to, and we have worked the whole time to keep that plan,” Stewart said. “Obviously, we’re working within their guidelines. So we are pretty damn sure that we will keep everyone safe. We’ve done between us [Done+Dusted and Hudlin Entertainment] probably 50 productions in COVID. And we haven’t lost a person yet. Making that level of celebrities ill is not on our agenda.”
Also like the Creative Arts Emmys, this year’s telecast will feature audience members seated at tables, and food and drink will be served.
“We want to do two things at once, make sure we have a safe environment for everyone who was attending the show, but also, let’s get out of the kind of typical theater situation,” Hudlin said. “Let’s get relaxed. Let’s sit at tables. Let’s drink a little, let’s have a little nibble. This is how we figured that makes for the maximum fun for both the viewers and the folks who are nominated. We’re going to have multiple stages, we’ll have projection screens. We’ll have chandeliers. And so we’ll make it look like a fun, ritzy party that you want to go to.”
That includes more music, Hudlin added.
“We’ll have plenty of great places for presenters to come out, for great musical performances,” he said. “We really want to give people a show. There’ll be plenty of music. But the most important thing is hearing from the winners, hearing their heartfelt testimony, hearing their humor, hearing their joy… When we do this show, we never lose track that that’s the heart of what the Emmys is, and that’s what we’re going to be doing Sunday night.”
Could this more intimate, relaxed table-seating setup be a permanent change to the Emmys?
“We were just talking about that,” McIntyre said. “But there’s something to the buzz of having 4,000 to 6,000 people in a room with you as well. And I’m sure that energy will be cool when we get back there. But I agree, this really is more of a feeling of like we’ve been for the past two years. Sitting with your nearest and dearest. There is an intimacy to the table setting that we think you’re going to see also come through really well at the telecast, when so many of those people probably haven’t seen each other.”
Meanwhile, when asked about sound designer James LeBrecht’s complaint of ADA violations regarding the inaccessibility of the Emmys stage, McIntyre and Scherma said that CBS was officially responding to those concerns. LeBrecht and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund have said that the Emmys “built a stage for the awards that is inaccessible from a front approach,” which they say violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and California civil rights laws.
But McIntyre responded: “We are fully ADA compliant. Both shows the Creative Arts had a lift for the stage, which was placed right next to the stage for anyone who might have needed it. And I know for the main show, we’re actually going even further than that. We fully appreciate both the visibility of showing that we are supporting and accessible. We’ve gone out to all of the attendees, asking anybody if they need special assistance. We’ve got two people dedicated to making sure that we have offered an accessible experience for everyone. And we take that very seriously.”
Now, as they prepare for Sunday’s Emmy telecast, after another year of uncertainty and constant shifting, McIntyre and Scherma are cautiously optimistic that they managed to pull off another unusual Emmy season pivot.
“It went from something that we’ve been doing for so many years, to something that’s totally new,” Scherma said. “Just figuring out all the different things that had to be done and how we’re going to do this.”
McIntyre said he’ll remember this year for the constant uncertainty. “It was, how many different plans can you have to backup the backup of the backup? Just because we didn’t know what might happen on a day to day basis,” he said. “We didn’t know how the attendees would feel, we didn’t know what we were going to be able to do from an L.A. County Health perspective, or from our own health and safety consultants’ perspective.
“And so being able to kind of flip and turn on a dime, depending on what you learned,” he added. “We were trying to make those decisions when we could, as quickly as we could, to get people what they needed to know, knowing that the following week, we were probably going to have another adjustment. But, fortunately I think people understand where we are.”
(Photo: Cedric The Entertainer, Reginald Hudlin, Frank Scherma and Ian Stewart.)