Can the Emmy Awards get its audience back?

The television awards show hopes that deploying Neil Patrick Harris as host and mixing up its usual format will grab viewers from 'Sunday Night Football.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

What's an awards show, like the Emmys, to do?

With just 9.3 million households tuning in last year – the lowest in the show's 60-year history – someone had to do something to try to goose interest in the Primetime Emmy Awards, the television industry's annual prize fest.

Enter Don Mischer, executive producer.

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Airing Sunday night on CBS, the awards ceremony faces formidable competition from NBC's "Sunday Night Football" – and doesn't Mr. Mischer know it.

Even when they're not up against the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys, awards shows today are a tricky business, he said by phone, speaking from the Nokia Theater here late in the week during an Emmy show rehearsal. "All awards shows have been sliding in the ratings," he says. "A good awards show," he adds, "has to not only do justice to the artists it honors, but it must be good entertainment."

He comes to the task this year armed with recent research about why the show was bombing with audiences.

One controversial idea – compressing, or "time-shifting," some awards to give more attention to traditional audience favorites – was rejected by the creative unions. But other ideas have produced what Mischer hopes is a streamlined and revitalized celebration.

Instead of the traditional scattershot approach, feathering in high-profile awards with the lesser-known categories, the evening will feature five themes: comedy, reality, miniseries (and movies or long form), variety, and drama. As each genre takes its turn, "we are hoping to show the most powerful, most gut-wrenching, and in some cases hilarious television of the season to set the tone for that genre," says Mischer.

The set will feature a control room with sophisticated production equipment as well as a live band onstage and a wealth of choreography, he adds.

The show is counting heavily, however, on the skill and charisma of its host, actor Neil Patrick Harris, who is also a listed producer.

"The producing element of it is just so that I have a little bit of creative control, so that I can help come up with ideas as opposed to just have writers send stuff that I just approve or don't like," says Mr. Harris, who hosted the Tony Awards show in June.

Having had so much fun and having been so involved with writing and production on the Tonys, he says, "I didn't want to take a step backwards and have to do the Emmys on a different playing field."

Two major challenges facing shows such as the Emmys are the proliferation of content and the splintering of audiences. "We want to preserve the wide appeal of the show," says Mischer, but that's difficult in a field increasingly filled by programs with smaller audiences.

One solution, says John Shaffner, chairman of the sponsoring Academy of Television of Arts and Sciences, is to boost the number of nominated shows, so that more people might see their own favorite on the list and tune in to root for it. Hence, this year there will be six nominees in each award category instead of five. And a crop of upstarts up for awards may help draw fans, too.

But perhaps the biggest foe is time. The actual show, minus ads, amounts to 2 hours, 6 minutes. And of all the major awards shows, such as the Grammys, the Tonys, and the Oscars, the Emmys give out the most statuettes, a total of 28. "That's a lot," adds Mischer with a laugh, "but we will do our best to let everyone have their moment in the spotlight."

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