Emmys hope for the 'Idol' touch

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Nigel Lythgoe couldn't resist an idle boast the other day, after he and a longtime colleague had just been tapped to try to rescue the TV industry's biggest night from a long slouch toward obsolescence.

"It's the first time the Emmy producers have been on the front of the bloody Hollywood Reporter and Variety!" exclaimed Lythgoe, a British-born choreographer turned TV impresario.

Lythgoe and fellow Brit Ken Warwick oversee Fox's "American Idol," currently in its sixth season and so unstoppable that competitors can only look upon its ratings and despair. Now the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences hopes the "Idol" duo will sprinkle its Nielsen pixie dust on September's Primetime Emmy Awards on Fox.

Viewers don't normally notice or care who midwifes a live ceremony, but installing the "Idol" guys in the Emmy control room amounts to a tacit admission from the normally change-averse TV academy that it needs to try something new or risk, you know, something approximating annihilation in a multi-channel universe. It's the same impulse that a while back led Oscar officials to turn to Chris Rock and Jon Stewart as hosts (although Sunday's Academy Awards emcee, the much more understated Ellen DeGeneres, hinted at a reversion to traditions).

For years, the TV academy has hired either of two respected live-broadcast vets, Don Mischer or Ken Ehrlich, to oversee the telecast. But like most other name-brand entertainment awards, the Emmys show has seen its ratings erode sharply over the past few outings. Last August, the Emmys gathered an average audience of 16.2 million on NBC, sliding 13% compared with the previous year on CBS and off nearly one-fifth compared with the 2002 broadcast, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research.

Lythgoe, whose shortcomings do not include excessive shyness, said he's up for the challenge. Once known to British viewers as a bombs-away judge on "Pop Idol" nicknamed "Nasty Nigel," he's more recently become almost-famous to American viewers as a less-brutal Simon Cowell on Fox's summer filler "So You Think You Can Dance."

"How could you present the cast of 'Heroes'?" he wondered of NBC's pulpy hit drama. "Could they come flying in on wires? Could you stop time? Those are the things I want to look at."

He added: "I think we're gonna shock people."

Pencil me in for the production meeting where they figure out how to stop time.

Whether or not Nasty Nigel shocks anyone, though, the consensus among TV professionals is that it's high time Emmy officials stepped outside their comfort zone. (Contacted through a spokeswoman, television academy Chairman Dick Askin didn't return a call.)

"It's definitely a step in the right direction," Shari Anne Brill, vice president at the New York-based ad firm Carat USA, said of the academy's choice of producers this year. In keeping with the "Idol" spirit, she added half in jest, "maybe they should have Americans pick what shows they want to win Emmys."

On the other hand, it's unlikely that the Emmys show is going to pile up "Idol"-like numbers even if viewers can text-message their votes until airtime and the producers convince Cowell and his on-air nemesis Ryan "Don't Call Me Sweetheart" Seacrest to open the show with a kick-boxing match. Unlike the Oscars broadcast, which has resided on ABC for decades, the Emmys program rotates annually among the four major broadcast networks, and some of the ceremony's ratings fluctuations are due to each network's strengths and weaknesses that particular year. More important, the glut of award shows is simply tiring viewers.

"There are more award shows than there are days in the year now, which is totally ridiculous," Warwick told me.

Lythgoe and Warwick will still have to blow through 27 Emmy categories in three hours, with plenty of clips and scripted bits tossed in, and that's clearly going to limit their opportunities for innovation. "It is an algebraic equation," Lythgoe said — and, of course, there's nothing quite so telegenic as algebra. Both men said they fully expect academy officials to weigh in with further demands over the next seven months.

But the producers did offer a couple of important clues to their approach. Viewers should look for a host who has never emceed the Emmys and more attention fixated on behind-the-scenes drama.

Lythgoe considers the emcee of paramount importance, although he refused to offer hints about his short list beyond this: "There are four people I would give my eyeteeth for — two individuals and one a double act." After a moment's reflection, he added: "Well, they're not a double act, really, but I know they'd be great together."

DeGeneres, Garry Shandling and Conan O'Brien shouldn't bother waiting by the phone. "I would not particularly like to go down the route of someone we've seen a thousand times before," Warwick said.

Meanwhile, the producers want an edgier focus on things viewers really care about — which would be not the art and craft of television, but rather gossip and fashion.

"There's more hype around who's wearing what and the reality, if you will, of what happens on the red carpet than there is around the actual content of the show," Warwick said.

Whether the British can come and really shake up the Emmys is anyone's guess at this point. But if they do succeed in reinvigorating the format, it'll represent perhaps the ultimate irony in awards-show history.

"Idol," one of the most popular TV shows in American history, has been nominated 22 times for Emmys. But no, it's never won.

The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at channelisland@latimes.com.

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