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Emmy Awards 2016: Should entertainment be free of politics?

Politics and entertainment has a long history in the United States. But does using entertainment platforms to deliver political messages adversely affect the democratic process?

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    Late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel, who will host the 68th Emmy Awards at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, poses Wednesday on a roll of red carpet during preparations for the show.
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Don Mischer, a longtime producer for the Emmy Awards, said he hopes this Sunday night’s ceremonies will stay focused on celebrating television at its very best, without being sucked into the political media spectacle of the current presidential race.

Despite hosting the last major awards show before the general election, late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel is not expected to take his jokes down too political a path, Mr. Mischer told Variety magazine. And the acceptance speeches should likewise remain apolitical, Mr. Mischer said.

“A celebration of television excellence would be a preferable thing to take away from the Emmys, as opposed to a political debate or a political bashing on stage. That’s just what I hope,” Mischer told the trade publication. “There have been Emmys in the past when things turned political, and once that door is opened, people start to follow suit. It can change the tone and direction of the entire show if it happens.”

Mischer, who carries an executive producer credit for the 2004 Democratic National Convention, was clearly referring to “politics” in the specific sense of partisan competition for public office.

But his comments invite questions about the nature of American politics and entertainment more broadly. Can the tangled two be untied? Should they?

In 2008, when the Emmys took place 44 days before Americans elected President Obama to his first term, presenters and honorees took turns behind the podium cracking political digs, many of them directed at Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Tina Fey, who had impersonated Ms. Palin on “Saturday Night Live,” pleaded with voters.

“I want to be done playing this lady Nov. 5,” Ms. Fey said, as reported by The Los Angeles Times. “So, if anyone can help me be done playing this lady, that would be good for me.”

In 2012, when Mr. Kimmel first hosted the Emmys, he included a few partisan zingers and political quips, as reported by CBS: “Being a Republican in Hollywood is like being a Chick-Fil-A sandwich on the snack table on the set of ‘Glee.’ ”

Kimmel also questioned the appropriateness of Mr. Obama’s citing “Homeland,” an espionage-themed political thriller that won six Emmys that year, as his favorite show.

Then there’s the perennial complaint that the awards themselves suffer from politics of a different kind. The day after the 2012 ceremonies, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump – known then as a reality TV star and real estate tycoon – cited such politics on Twitter as the reason his show, “The Apprentice,” had been snubbed.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has also tweeted about the Emmys, last year congratulating Viola Davis on becoming the first black woman to win for outstanding actress in a drama.

Young voters don’t seem to mind that politics can be fun and entertainment can be political, University of North Texas assistant professor Gwendelyn Nisbett tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Dr. Nisbett, who studied the political influence celebrities can wield over young voters, spent a decade in campaign politics before launching her career as an academic. She says an apolitical awards ceremony could be seen as a departure from tradition.

“Usually, something like the Emmys is a platform for speaking out on a particular issue,” Nisbett says.

But all this discussion of what happens behind-the-scenes, on stage, and after the Emmys doesn’t address the event’s innately political core, which is especially pronounced this year. From “Mr. Robot” and “Black-ish“ to “Veep” and “House of Cards,” the 2016 nominees reflect the sociopolitical concerns of Americans, as Mary McNamara with The Los Angeles Times noted.

“In the midst of a presidential race bristling with divisive issues and distrust, the Television Academy singled out a large number of series that took on that distrust and those issues in ways dramatic, comedic and deeply human,” Ms. McNamara wrote.

This interplay between popular culture and politics is not new. In the early 1900s, academics began thinking of mass-produced culture as itself a form of politics, according to Lilly Goren, a Carroll University professor of political science and global studies who has an essay on the topic in the journal Society’s October 2016 issue.

“When we sit down and turn on the television set, we are not necessarily thinking about the ideas communicated by the images and narratives we see and engage with, but those images and narratives contribute to cultural concepts and identities, and often more clearly define national and political self-views because of the narratives themselves,” Ms. Goren wrote.

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