Award Shows Go Virtual This Year: What Will They Look Like?

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“We can’t honor the best moments in the year of sports, when half the year didn’t get played,” ESPYs producer Jeff Smith says

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Even in the coronavirus era, the show must go on, leaving award shows to figure out how to digitally translate the glitz and glamour. Over the next few weeks, three award shows, including the Daytime Emmys, will give us our first idea at what major virtual award shows will look like. It begins on Sunday with The ESPYs, followed by the Daytime Emmy Awards on June 26. The BET Awards will be held two days later on June 28. With the Television Academy keen on maintaining its Sept. 20 airdate for the Primetime Emmys, TV’s biggest night could also get the virtual treatment. “We don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, this was a really great show, considering the times,’” Jeff Smith, vice president of entertainment for MaggieVision, which produces the ESPYs for ESPN, told TheWrap. “We want people to look at the show and not really feel like there’s any drop in production value.” For the Daytime Emmys, this marks its return to television — it was live-streamed the past four years — as well as to CBS, which has aired the show 14 times. This will be the second Emmy show overseen by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences that will be done virtually. The New York Emmy Awards took place on April 25 with presenters opening the envelopes from various locations and winners encouraged to give their “acceptance speeches” on social media. “I think it’s going to actually mirror the experience at home quite a bit,” NATAS CEO Adam Sharp told TheWrap, explaining that viewers, the hosts, presenters and acceptors will all be participating from their homes. “You can expect a much more intimate production than you’re probably used to for the Daytime Emmys, but daytime is a very intimate medium to begin with. It is something that’s not 12 episodes you binge on and then wait.” The BET Awards will get its biggest platform, with a simulcast on ViacomCBS networks including CBS, giving the broadcaster two shows in a span of three days. It’s not letting that go to waste, despite the lack of a stage. “As soon as I hear ‘virtual,’ I see someone sitting on their couch, or in their room with their own cell phone, and this is far from that,” said Connie Orlando, executive producer of the 2020 BET Awards and executive vice president of specials, music programming and music strategy at BET.

“The limit of the stage isn’t there this year,” she added. “The [artists] were super excited to show up and be as creative as they can be within the rules.”

Though the show will be pre-taped — all performances will be shot on sets in compliance with sanitation procedures and social distancing guidelines — Orlando teases they could still integrate live aspects into the show: “We are working on that as we speak, to find the best way to keep everything secret.”

The ESPYs not only have the unenviable task of going first, it is also the award show that was arguably most impacted by the virus. Smith said they had to re-work the whole structure, given that it wouldn’t be fair to honor the best athlete or team when the NHL and NBA seasons were suspended — and other major events were canceled outright. “We can’t honor the best moments in the year of sports when half the year didn’t get played. Can’t really do a ‘best moment’ when there’s no Masters and there’s no March Madness,” Smith said. “We went through and said, ‘Okay, let’s figure out how we can do the highlight packages without any people awards.’” This year’s ESPYs will shift its focus towards the impact of the coronavirus on the world of sports and how communities have responded, as well as highlight sports’ role in the nationwide protests against racial injustice. “I think we have a unique ability to sort of pull all those threads together sports life culture, what’s happening with COVID what’s happening with this national uprising,” said Megan Rapinoe, one of the ESPYs three hosts, during a conference call with reporters this week. The BET Awards also finds itself having greater relevance amid the Black Lives Matter movement. “The BET Awards has always been a platform for change and to amplify voices, so we will have some performances and some moments during the show that speak to exactly what’s going on,” said Orlando. Rapinoe will host the ESPYs alongside her girlfriend and WNBA star Sue Bird, as well as NFL star Russell Wilson. While Rapinoe and Bird will be able to film their parts together, Wilson will join remotely from his home (though Bird said there will be some “fancy TV magic” to make it look like all three are in the same room at times). The Daytime Emmys will be hosted by the cast of “The Talk,” which has already had practice at this. They’ve been producing shows remotely during the pandemic for months. For Sharp, the Daytime Emmys are the beginning of a lengthy run. The NATAS produces multiple Emmys telecasts, including the News and Documentary Emmys and Sports Emmys. Each one brings its own challenges, he said. “The goal is to give each one its own feeling.” But unlike the ESPYs, the Sports Emmys cutoff is the Super Bowl, meaning they’ll be able to give out awards as usual. “I think that question will be more of a challenge for next year,” he said. “Because of that built-in one-year delay to the awards process, it does mean that we’re almost extending the impact of COVID-19. This year, we have all the content we put in a normal year. Next year, we might be able to do the event, but the content is going to be very different.” The ESPYs were moved up from its typical mid-July airdate and will be a pre-produced show instead of a live telecast. It is normally held the day after the MLB All-Star Game, the only day of the year that none of the major professional sports have any games scheduled. “We won’t stop filming the show until literally hours before we have to deliver as ESPN as a fully-produced show,” said Smith. With the ESPYs being the first out of the gate, Smith hopes they can serve as a template. “I think all we can hope for is that not only viewers, but I think within our industry, that people ultimately look to this show and say, you know, that they had some great ideas,” Smith said. “I wonder how they did that.”