The Emmy Awards: TV's way of psyching up the viewers for another network season

TELEVISION IN TRANSITION

September 16, 1990|By David Zurawik Sun | David Zurawik Sun,Television Critic

For viewers, tonight's "42nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards Show" is many things. It's wondering who among Ted Danson, John Goodman, Richard Mulligan, Craig T. Nelson or Fred Savage will be named best actor in a comedy series. It's wondering whether "Twin Peaks," which leads all shows with 14 nominations, will clean up when the winners are announced.

The Emmy awards, which airs at 8 tonight on WBFF-TV (Channel 45), is also wondering whether Delta Burke will win best actress in a comedy series. And if she does, how will her co-stars and producers react? Will they snub her or give her phony hugs or what, given their history of public feuding? Maybe she'll use the platform to try and kiss and make up.

Part of the appeal of Emmy night is that mix of the unpredictability of live television (no matter how carefully staged), celebrity watching, competition and the chance to match our tastes and values against Hollywood's.

But big television events such as this also connect with us in deeper, more satisfying and often less understood ways. Think for a minute of tonight's show as the big bonfire and pep rally before the home opener of the football season. That's one of the functions the broadcast serves. The show is supposed to get us fired up for the kickoff of the new television season, which officially begins tonight.

That's the business function of the Emmy program. It is the television industry's traditional and official way of saying to viewers, "Hey, summer's over. All the stars you love are here. Come on back to your television sets and see us. It's gonna be a great year, our best season ever."

Like a pep rally, the star players will be brought on stage to say a few words and tell us how excited they are about what's to come. But just seeing them live -- as opposed to in reruns -- will be enough to send the message: They are back and looking good. And, like a pep rally, songs will be sung that celebrate our shared values as television viewers. Trophies will also be handed out to remind us of heroics of last season. In that sense, the Emmy television show is a lavish three-hour promotional event.

Or think of tonight's broadcast as a parade. Critic Michael Arlen has suggested that the Emmy, Oscar, Grammy and Tony television shows are a new kind of parade for the television age.

"Our processional avenues are no longer the streets of our great cities," Arlen said in an essay published in his book, "The Camera Age," "but the airwaves ... through which images of the paraders are now displayed. ... [And] though televison appears to have changed our folk customs by transforming, for example, the Oscar ceremonies into the self-important, slickly sentimental TV package they [have become], what seems more interesting is the way we've changed (while also staying the same), now goggling en masse at Raquel Welch, wafting by in a red satin jump suit, instead of, say, Her Imperial and Royal Highness the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, gliding by under 35 kilos of taffeta and rubies."

Television itself continues to change, even as it changes the way we live and see the world.

The Emmy show used to be a celebration of the Big Three broadcasting networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS. Those three still lead in nominations. And the show is still geared disproportionately to them.

But the broadcast itself now airs on the Fox network. Fox is representative of the new forces -- cable, independent channels and VCRs -- that have so dramatically changed the TV universe the last decade. In 1980, the Big Three had a combined audience share of about 90 percent. Today it is about 60 percent.

Further change is reflected in all those nominations for "Twin Peaks," a show that broke new ground in terms of structure and content. Programmers at the Big Three have finally admitted this year that the old formulas of prime-time entertainment can no longer cut it. There are simply too many other choices for viewers. And they have finally come to understand that they won't have a combined audience of 60 percent next year if they don't find more shows like "Twin Peaks" that break new ground.

Remember, the Emmy Awards are given by members of the television industry. Many of them have long chafed under the ultraconservative programming dictates of the network executives. A big win for "Twin Peaks" tonight could be their way of nurturing a climate in Hollywood where such innovation and daring are rewarded.

A betting person might put his money on a big night for "Twin Peaks," with top directing awards for David Lynch and an acting award for Kyle MacLachlan, who plays F.B.I. Agent Dale Cooper. But betting persons were betting big on "Lonesome Dove" cleaning up at last year's Emmy show (on the premise of academy members sending a message about quality programming) and they were wrong.

If "Twin Peaks" wins big, though, tonight's show will probably be seen as a watershed event. It will be one the clearest signs that television is going to get more innovative, daring and interesting, if not better. It will be a guarantee to viewers that they will be seeing more shows like "Twin Peaks," "In Living Color" and "The Simpsons."

One of the big events tonight is expected to come when Bart and the rest of the Simpsons appear (through animation) as presenters.

A pep rally. A ceremonial parade. I wonder what Marge Simpson will be wearing. Will Bart say anything outrageous? And how could they nominate Fred Savage and not Bart?

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