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TV Academy CEO Remembers 9/11 — and the Emmys That Almost Weren’t

Hollyblog: Since the Emmys came into existence in 1949, they had never been postponed or canceled until 2001 — in that year it happened twice

Since the Emmy Awards came into existence in 1949, they had never been postponed or canceled until 2001. In that year it happened twice.

I was elected chairman/CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in August 2001, almost a month to the day before 9/11. The Emmy broadcast was scheduled for Sept. 16 of that year.

This meant that the first big decision on my watch was whether it was possible — five days after the worst act of terrorism in history — to imagine a walk down the red carpet with Hollywood celebs.

Clearly, it wasn't.

When my running partner and I saw my wife, Jackie, driving up to find me on the morning of Sept. 11, I knew that something bad had to have happened. She told us to get in the car, that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. America was at war … with somebody.

At home my family huddled in front of the TV while we all watched, like everyone else in the nation. I remember feeling physically sick and knowing that life had just gotten so much more dangerous and complicated.

At the same time, I was also on the phone with the team from the TV Academy and our network sponsors at CBS. During the phone tag interaction, the idea that the Emmys might not happen at all was on the table immediately.

I asked if there had ever been a year when they had not taken place. The answer was no. But that Tuesday afternoon, after more phone calls and meetings, there was a unanimous consensus to cancel the show on Sunday.

This would have an incredible financial impact on both CBS and the Academy, but no one at this point even cared. We confirmed that decision to the media with the caveat that there was yet no clarity as to when they would be rescheduled. After all, the death toll was mounting in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Nothing seemed to matter but that.

Things were complicated at the Academy by the fact that, although I had just been elected a month earlier, I was not scheduled to officially take office until Oct. 1. So my predecessor Meryl Marshall-Daniels, the Academy president Jim Chabin and I went to CBS as a team the next day to talk it out with Les Moonves and his people.

Two dates were on the table — the only times that the Shrine Auditorium could be rented again — Sept. 24 and Oct. 7. The network side tended to favor September because the Emmys have always been like a starting gun for the fall season. The Academy side tended to favor October  because the passions of the moment made it seem inconceivable that anyone would be ready for a red carpet in less than two weeks.

In the end, after both sides canvassed the likely attendees, we realized that Sept. 24 would have too many no-shows. Oct. 7 became the date by default. There had also been debate about giving up and not doing them at all. While we all felt while that would have been an easy decision, we came to believe that waiting almost a month after the attacks felt like it would work. Fate had other ideas.

In the weeks to come, as the nation struggled to find its footing, we were urged as a people to get back to whatever it was we did before 9/11 because, if we didn't, then "the terrorists win." I remember an editorial cartoon of Osama bin Laden in his cave cursing the fact that we re-scheduled the Emmys and explaining to an underling that this was a defeat for terrorism.

If only it were that simple.

I did so much media in that time period that it still seems like a dream. The Los Angeles Times called me "the Ari Fleischer of the entertainment industry," a comparison to Bush's press secretary that felt like more of a compliment at the time than it would later seem. All I know is that during those nearly 60 days, I woke up every morning and put on a tie and drove into town to face whatever challenge was coming up. 

Then came the morning Oct. 7. I was lacing up my shoes for a run to shake off the nerves that come with knowing you will be speaking before 6,000 people in an audience and 90 million others on their TV sets. But my phone rang and a friend said, "Turn on your TV."

That day was the beginning of the invasion of Afghanistan. So not only did the terrorists not care about show business, neither did the White House. I immediately called Moonves, who was on the golf course that morning, and we both began to canvass our respective constituencies.

Never had either of us had so little time and so few facts to make such an important decision. What we both found out in short order is that if we went ahead with the Emmys that night we'd have a lot of empty seats. Actors, producers and writers alike seemed to be too worried about the news to come to a party.

We canceled the Emmy awards an unprecedented second time.

Limos were turned around, make-up artists sent home, and the stage lights turned off. Three-thousand gourmet dinners, already bought and paid for, were donated to homeless shelters.

The next day, I appeared on “Politically Incorrect” with a Muslim activist and Joan Rivers and had Bill Maher berate me for not having the guts to just go through with the show. Maher was on a tear at the time, having just gotten in hot water for saying it was "cowardly" to lob cruise missiles at terrorists in comparison to the courage it must have taken them to commit suicide in an airliner bomb.

The truth is, he was just as wrong about the Emmys. At such a sensitive time, it made no sense to throw a party that nobody wanted to come to.

But now came the big question. Given two postponements, was it time to just admit defeat and say that 2001 was going to be the year the Emmys never happened? The one year in the record books with the asterisk by it?

There were voices that argued that the whole thing had gotten out of hand. They had a point. Even as the leader of the TV Academy, it seemed obvious to me that no awards show really is worthy of the kind of attention this one was getting. That realization was also the answer. This wasn't about an awards show any more. And even though none of us could 100 percent put our finger on what it was all about, we knew it had to happen.

We picked a new date, a month away, Nov. 4, and we would do these Emmys on that day even if no one came. I started telling reporters that if nobody showed up, I would stick all the Emmy statuettes in a rented Suburban and drive them from house to house and give them to the winners.

(At left, Ellen DeGeneres and Martin Short at the Nov. 4 Emmys)

Many adjustments were made. One key change was downgrading the dress code from formal, ditching the evening gowns and tuxedos in favor of business attire. We renamed the Governor's Ball the "Unity Ball" and asked all the studios and networks to cancel their own parties. The idea was that everyone stay together and hang out as a community, rather than breaking up for separate events.

After two no-shows, we lost the Shrine Auditorium over a scheduling conflict. Moonves and I discussed doing the Emmys in a military hangar up near Oxnard where service men and women scheduled to ship out to Afghanistan could sit with celebrities. We got a lot of pushback from agents, managers and celebrities and it never happened. So we picked the more traditional venue of the smaller Shubert Theater in Century City.

Security was beefed up as never before with snipers on roofs, metal detectors and a massive police presence. It was no exaggeration when I told the press that people who attended the Emmys would be safer in the theater that night than they would in their own bathtub.

But we didn’t just lose the Shrine. We also lost our producer, Don Mischer, who had to leave to produce the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics that were coming up. We also lost our script in that after each postponement it had to be ripped up and started over because the mood of the country and of Hollywood was changing day-by-day.

But as it turned out, the telecast was funnier than either the Sept. 16 or Oct. 7 broadcasts could ever have been. Remember host Ellen DeGeneres welcoming us to the 53rd, 54th and 55th Emmy Awards, then casting herself as the Taliban's worst nightmare, wondering if there was anything that could bug them more than a lesbian woman in a pantsuit surrounded by Jews?  

Her tone was perfect and her timing spot on. I loved it when she said of the terrorists who had attacked us just two months earlier: "They can't take away our creativity, our striving for excellence, our joy,'' she said. "Only network executives can do that."

Traditionally, the Academy chairman speaks for a couple of minutes and, charitably, it's not a show highlight. But on the 9/11 Emmys I felt a higher standard, amplified by the fact that I was the first writer to hold the position since Rod Serling. I wrote my own speech for that night, including:

“Terrorism doesn't stop with shattered glass and shattered lives. It aims to crush the spirit of the survivors. To have given up (on the Emmys) would have been more than a postponement or a cancellation, it would have been a defeat. That's because for 52 years previously — through war and peace, through assassinations and civil unrest — the Emmys have been awarded on television.

“Like baseball and Broadway, we are an American tradition. Especially in such challenging times, these cultural touchstones become important. Many millions of viewers from more than 90 different nations are watching tonight. They see us exercising our freedom to assemble, and proclaiming that fundamental ideal that inspires all artists, freedom of expression.”

I honestly don't remember much about the winners and losers that night. Mostly I remember watching the audience as Phil Driscoll's trumpet solo of "God Bless America" opened the show and, later, as Barbara Streisand's "You'll Never Walk Alone" ended it, and seeing people with tears in their eyes, squeezing hands with their significant others. 

As it turned out, the Emmys ended up scheduled against a seventh game of an incredibly exciting World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees. The fact that these two “live” events were going on before huge crowds in the United States on the same night less than two months after 9/11 was part of the proof America was looking for that life really could go on.


Bryce Zabel served as the elected chairman/CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, and was responsible for the post 9/11 Emmy awards as well as the negotiations which led to an unprecedented 250 percent license fee increase for the telecast. He has been an award-winning on-air PBS investigative reporter and CNN correspondent. As a screenwriter, he has created five primetime television series, notably NBC’s Emmy-winning  "Dark Skies," and 2008 received the Writers Guild of America award for writing his third four-hour Hallmark mini-series, "Pandemic." He recently scripted a trio of film assignments based on optioned material: "Majic Men," about the Roswell investigators; "The Last Battle," about the final week of World War II in Europe; and "Let’s Do It," about the first full-length student film ever produced. He also created and edits the film review website, Movie Smackdown!