As BET Awards, SNL, Late Show and Others Invite Back Audiences, Stage is Set for the Emmys

Those sweatpants you’ve been wearing the past 14 months are comfy, no doubt about it. But it may be time to dust off that formal wear — or at least see if it still fits. In-person events are coming back, starting with next month’s BET Awards, which will be the first major ceremony since the pandemic began to include fully vaccinated audience members. That’s another step on the road to TV normalcy — and something the Television Academy and CBS should be watching with interest as they begin to plan this year’s Emmy Awards telecast.

When the history book is eventually written on TV’s COVID-19 pivot, at least one chapter should focus on the evolving ways awards shows handled these times. A year ago, the BET Awards was one of the first kudocasts to take place in lockdown, as well as address the long-overdue national focus on police brutality, Black Lives Matter and systemic racism in this country. With host Amanda Seales alone in a studio, the BET Awards relied on pretaped original performances, several shot outdoors, that addressed many of these issues while also boasting a sleek, music-video quality.

“It was very scary at first, but then it became just so exciting,” says Connie Orlando, BET’s exec VP of specials, music programming and music strategy. “It wasn’t about going into it like ‘Oh, my gosh, how are we going to do the award show in the pandemic?’ It was finding those great moments and things that spoke to where we were and how to execute it. ‘We’re not on a stage, but guess what — we have the whole world as our set now. How do you utilize that?’ It taught me about resilience, perspective, and really reignited my creativity.”

Normally, awards shows all end up in the variety special (live) category: Last year, Norman Lear’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” won in a field that included the Golden Globes, Tonys, Oscars and Super Bowl halftime show. But during the height of the pandemic, many ceremonies, including the BET Awards, were pretaped — and instead will compete in the variety special (prerecorded) category, which last year was dominated by six stand-up comedy programs.

If there was ever a time to commemorate the level of difficulty in producing an awards show, this might be the year. It took ingenuity to pull off completely different versions of these shows. “It would be great to be recognized,” Orlando says. “I thought it was a powerful show, as opposed to just a powerful awards show.”

As for the decision to include a live audience with this year’s BET Awards, Orlando says it was important for the network to promote vaccinations to its viewers, and that she’s working closely with Los Angeles County in adhering to COVID protocols.

“The energy of an audience and performing to people, we all miss it,” she says. “As a producer I miss it, being in the room and watching it unfold.”

Clearly Orlando isn’t the only one. After months of broadcasting “Saturday Night Live” with small clusters of socially distanced audience members, the show’s May 22 season finale boasted a full in-studio audience for the first time since the start of the pandemic. And CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” announced that it will return to The Ed Sullivan Theater on Monday, June 14, with a full, vaccinated audience.

According to CBS, “the plan to return to the theater is consistent with New York State’s adoption of the CDC guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals and has been reviewed by the state. Guests will be required to show proof of being fully vaccinated prior to entering. Face masks will be optional. All staff and crew members will continue to be tested prior to commencing work on a regular basis, as well as screened daily for symptoms. In addition, a COVID-19 compliance officer will be on staff to monitor and enforce all health and safety COVID-19 protocols.”

The Television Academy and CBS haven’t determined yet whether this year’s Primetime Emmys, slated for Sept. 19, will take place in person. But as vaccination rates rise in Southern California, and restrictions on gatherings continue to ease up, it does seem possible that the Emmys will return to business as normal. Says Orlando of BET’s pioneering status: “I don’t mind being the first one out there to test it out.”

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