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Pandemic and streaming force TV and the Emmy Awards into a new era

As the shift from scheduled entertainment to on-demand streaming continues, USC experts debate what counts as television these days — and if anyone will watch the industry’s biggest night.

Emmy Awards 2021
As the universe of television expands, so do opportunities and challenges for the professionals who make it. (Photo/iStock)

Everybody loves a winner, so which beloved shows will walk away with the winged statue of a woman holding an atom at the 73rd annual Emmy Awards on Sept. 19?

As the universe of television expands, so do opportunities and challenges for the professionals who make it. The outcome of this year’s Emmys can help determine which pathways some of those creators will take.

When it comes to the Emmy Awards, what’s in a name?

To differentiate from its daytime and local cousins, the show most of us simply call the Emmys calls itself the Primetime Emmy Awards — a problematic sobriquet in an era when primetime means little to viewers who stream or record and then watch whenever they want.

“Is it TV if it shows in chunks rather than in one fell swoop?” asked Howard Rodman, professor of cinematic writing for screen and television at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “Is a limited series a series or an attenuated feature without the benefit of a theatrical release?”

Confusion is not a bad thing in the eyes of Rodman, who believes the shakeup is good for the medium. As the lines between cinema, television and streaming channels blur, he questions how the best productions can stand out when shows of all ilk are proliferating.

“If the movie studios only give us what they already know will satisfy, and the streamers only give us what will enable them to expand their subscriber base, what happens to creativity as it’s increasingly cast adrift in a sea of content?” he asked.

Pandemic accelerates the shift from cinema to streaming

When the world locked down in March of 2020, theatres went dark. Those that survived are reopening to big crowds, as evidenced by the triumph of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Marvel’s first superhero featuring an Asian actor as lead brought in a record take for a film opening Labor Day weekend, more than doubling the previous record.

While theatrical exhibition enjoys a comeback, the audiences who watch television — and the students who will soon be making it — have refocused their attention to streaming services, which had no cinematic competition during the lockdown.

“The current generation identifies with what they see on television more than in theatres,” said Barnet Kellman, professor of cinematic film and television at the School of Cinematic Arts who won an Emmy for best director of a comedy series for Murphy Brown.

“Streaming has fractured the TV audience, and shows no longer need big-tent, common denominator appeal to succeed,” he said. “This has allowed television to respond more nimbly to this generation’s appetite for wider representation. The new generation is more in line with the Emmys and will be watching with added interest and respect.”

A moment — and potentially a movement — for diversity on TV

More than a decade after a renewed push for better representation began, performers of color make up nearly half of this year’s nominees.

“The Emmys are ablaze with nominees of all hues, and that’s a very good thing,” said Miki Turner, associate professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “What’s most important is that nominations for people like Michaela Coel, MJ Rodriguez, Rege-Jean Page and Bowen Yang don’t feel at all disingenuous. They have all earned the right to be introduced as ‘Emmy nominee,’ and/or subsequently, ‘Emmy winner.’”

The Emmys are ablaze with nominees of all hues, and that’s a very good thing.

Miki Turner

Whether she wins or not, Rodriguez has captured the Emmy spotlight as the first trans woman nominated for lead actress in a dramatic series for her performance in Pose.

Pose has the largest cast of transgender actors in a scripted television show,” said Anita Dashiell-Sparks, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion at the USC School of Dramatic Arts. “In light of this year’s diverse nominees, the longtime pattern of erasure and invisibility is being challenged and potentially disrupted.”

The big question: Who will watch the Emmy Awards?

Last year, the audience for the Emmys bottomed out with 6.4 million viewers., which unfavorably compares to 21.8 million in 2000. While interest in television and streaming content is rising, interest in the Emmys continues to head in the other direction, leaving Gene Del Vecchio to wonder about the ceremony’s relevance.

“Will anyone watch the 2021 Emmy Awards?” asked Del Vecchio, an adjunct professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business. “A few nominated shows, compliments of newcomer Disney+, might bring in viewers who don’t typically watch. Then again, many of those audiences might be too busy to tune in to an old fashion Emmy broadcast.”

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Pandemic and streaming force TV and the Emmy Awards into a new era

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