Emmy or Not to Emmy?

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

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 Skiesand 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.

Twice, TV academy chairman and CEO Bryce Zabel has grappled with the decision to cancel or reschedule the Emmy Awards telecast.
Twice, TV academy chairman and CEO Bryce Zabel has grappled with the decision to cancel or reschedule the Emmy Awards telecast.

"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 McBealcreator 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 Livecast members. Zabel says there was considerable "hand-wringing" over the show's tone, which was complicated by the somber Heroestribute, 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: Mustthe 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."

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