From the pages of...
  • Originally published on
  • Thursday, May. 6, 2021
Top left, clockwise: producer Ann Leslie Uzdavinis, Governor-Commercials Peer Group/Television Academy; Emmy® statuette ©ATAS/NATAS; Rich Carter, Governor-Commercials Peer Group/Television Academy & EP/partner, brother; Kwame Taylor-Hayford, Co-Founder, Kin; Darcy Parsons, owner/partner, KEVIN; Paul Albanese, managing director, broadcast production, David&Goliath
The Evolution Of The Primetime Commercial Emmy Award
TV Academy Commercials Peer Group Governors reflect on extraordinary circumstances of the past year and how they may impact the proceedings; three other voting members provide takes on judging work during the pandemic era; entry deadline approaches

The primetime commercial Emmy Award evolved from “Chimps”--that’s the title of the HBO spot, directed by Joe Pytka for BBDO New York, which won the very first such Television Academy recognition in 1997. The commercial Emmy has since gone on to encompass a wide range of work, taking on greater importance spurred on by changes in the business over the years as multiple outlets and platforms beyond the once dominant “Big 3” networks emerged and consumers gained more control over what commercials, if any, they watched. As a result, entertainment and or/societal relevance have become essential in getting audiences to pay attention to ad fare. Thus the Emmy, a barometer of entertainment value, is now all the more significant and pertinent to the advertising creative/marketers community at large.

BBDO NY has the distinction of earning not only the first but also the most recent spotmaking Emmy, the latter coming last September for Sandy Hook Promise’s “Back to School Essentials” directed by Henry-Alex Rubin of SMUGGLER. The public service piece starts off as a familiar back-to-school ad but slowly unfolds to highlight students using everyday back-to-school items to survive an outbreak of gun violence, shedding light on the gruesome reality that youngsters face in the reality of classroom and campus shootings. 

From “Chimps” to “Back to School Essentials” (with such work as Nike’s “Dream Crazy,” Procter & Gamble’s “The Talk,” PBS’ “Photo Booth,” Apple’s “Misunderstood,” Coca-Cola’s “Heist” and Bud Light’s “Swear Jar” in between), the evolution of the primetime commercial Emmy and its recipients over the decades make for a fascinating case study. But not even the most astute scholar of Darwinian theory could have foreseen how the award is evolving presently in light of a year that none of us could have imagined as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, systemic racism came front and center, protests and initiatives for reform gained momentum, and more brands saw the benefit of and the need to take progressive stands on issues and concerns.

With the entry deadline, May 13, fast approaching for this year’s primetime spot Emmy, interest has piqued relative to the nature of the work that will be submitted (will much of it reflect these challenging times?), how it might be judged in light of the extraordinary circumstances, and how this fare even got made, often within the constraints of pandemic-related lockdowns and quarantines. Just bringing content to fruition marks a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself given what the world has experienced over the past year. 

To gain some insights as to what may be in store for the upcoming spot Emmy competition, SHOOT sounded out the two Governors of the TV Academy Commercials Peer Group, producer Ann Leslie Uzdavinis, and production house brother’s founding partner Rich Carter, as well as a trio of Commercials Peer Group members, Paul Albanese, managing director, broadcast production at ad agency David&Goliath, Darcy Parsons, owner/partner of visual effects house KEVIN, and Kwame Taylor-Hayford, Co-Founder, Kin.  Based on a series of questions posed by SHOOT editorial director & publisher, Roberta Griefer, here's a look at the insightful feedback received...

Ann Leslie Uzdavinis
Commercials Peer Group Governor Uzdavinis shared that her approach to judging entries remains consistent. “Personally I don’t think my perspective has changed when I’m reviewing work as I think the best work usually reflects the context of what is happening both within the industry and within the market that a project is produced for, and both those factors frequently have an impact on the creative and how work is produced. When I’m judging, my perspective shifts if needed based on the awards show’s rules or specific category guidelines.

“As a member of the Television Academy,” she continued, “I vote on a wide variety of program awards as well as on the Outstanding Commercial Award so you look at how the entire project plays. For the specific categories that are for a single discipline (acting, cinematography, editing, hair & make-up, etc.), those awards are voted on by those specific peer groups. For our Outstanding Commercial Emmy, our Commercials Peer Group votes in two rounds, first on all submitted commercials so we select our nominees and then in the second round on the specific nominees to select the one winner. Our Commercials Peer Group is the only Peer Group made up of all the roles represented by all the other Academy Peer groups - so we have people who have a wide variety of roles in commercial production (actors, creatives, directors, editors, producers, and more). So while an actor may have a lens that has them a bit more focused on performance, or an editor on the edit, as we only have one Outstanding Commercial Emmy we are looking at the totality of the piece.

As for the extraordinary circumstances of the past year, Uzdavinis observed, “Because we were confined by COVID, it created an interesting situation where we had more time to focus our attention on the distractions we could find at home so I think people were more focused on both entertainment and news. Racism, violence, discrimination, social unrest, political division have been constant drum beats in America but I think the combination of more targeted media and the fact that we had to stay at home exacerbated those drum beats. While I love that we have so much choice in media to consume and way to create content, the fact that everyone’s personal beliefs are being reinforced by the narrow focus of the content being directed to you by an algorithm or targeted programming isn’t helping. Any way we can find common ground is important and that can be done by those shows or commercials that are engaging as that engagement allows them to make a difference. In my option, the heightened focus during the pandemic has both been a great motivation for both activism and change as well as the need to sometimes just switch off to rest or be entertained by pure joy. There is a lot of work needed to be done in continuing to expand diversity, inclusion and equity and that work needs to be done by organizations, corporations and individuals to affect real change and I think it is important work to do in news, entertainment and in commercials, promos and PSAs.”

Concern over health, well-being and safety during the pandemic--and brands standing for something--also figure into the equation for Uzdavinis. “Certainly, with the events of this past year, I notice how something was produced to be COVID-compliant. It’s also been interesting to see the shift from so much creative relying on stock imagery to then shooting with a DP or Director’s Pod to now having more latitude in what and how we can create. It’s also been wonderful to see work that shines a light on the realities of the past year. I was raised to be an active member of my community and to find a career that I loved and so I love being involved with projects that make a difference in the world. So, by extension, yes I do appreciate when a brand or a person takes a stand but it sometimes also activates me to see if they are truly living up to what they project or at least making a difference in how they act.”

Uzdavinis eagerly anticipates the chance to review this year’s Emmy entries. “In any year, I love seeing the wide variety of ways that the best storytellers engage their audience and find ways to amplify issues or ways to weave contemporary themes into a story, or if they chose to give us an escape from what is happening in our everyday life. So, I can’t wait to see what work is submitted for this year’s Emmys and hope that we have a great variety of commercials again this year. Television, including commercials, can have an incredible impact and I think it is important that creators recognize the responsibility that comes with the request we are putting out when we want to enter people’s homes and lives and in wanting their attention to the work we produce. The fact that more people are creating with that responsibility in mind is something that I so appreciate. It’s also something that we’ve seen in greater numbers in commercial submissions for the Emmys. Last year’s nominees for Outstanding Commercial reflected the appreciation for great production across genres and included both pieces that greatly entertained and some that spotlighted the continuing social issues of racial profiling, gun violence and mass shootings. Regardless if a story is a :30 commercial or two-hour documentary, the ability to get your story across in a compelling manner is what matters and strong storytellers can do that within the confines they are given. The onset of the pandemic just gave us additional confines and necessitated more thought for both how to tell the story and how to produce the work. Part of producing is solving a puzzle that is some of what I love about my job and this was just a new layer to that puzzle. It was wonderful to see how collaborative people across the industry have been in sharing the solutions that they have come up when facing COVID limitations. Seeing so much dialogue and shared solutions within and between organizations has been heart-warming. As I am a member of the PGA, Women In Film, Film Independent and the Television Academy and am also invited to sit in on some AICP events, it has been great to see how each organization and different types of productions have taken on this past year’s challenges. Commercial production continues to be an incredible laboratory for the industry. The best commercial production companies, agencies, producers and directors are great at using these shorter stories as a playground to experiment with new techniques and ideas, and that was borne out with commercial production continuing to help lead best practices.”

The Emmy are just part of what drew Uzdavinis into Academy involvement. “While the Emmys are better-known, The Television Academy Honors (which is an award to acknowledge programs who us the power of television to fuel social change) is my personal favorite program that the Academy does annually,” she shared. “I also love all the education programs run by the Academy and the Television Academy Foundation to facilitate and encourage discussion and leadership in important areas including educating the next generation in the industry. By extension, I do think it is important that we not only celebrate the best work, but take a leadership position in being a catalyst for change. That is one of the reasons why I have chosen to give time, energy and support to the Television Academy, Women In Film and the Producers Guild as well as being a resource as best I can to commercials and production. It is Emmy that is the Television Academy’s bright, golden beacon the celebrates outstanding work and looking at the way commercial production had to evolve this past year should make it a very interesting body of submissions."

Rich Carter
Carter said of the upcoming competition, “We producers of TV commercials, and particularly Annie and I as Governors, are honored and grateful to be a part of the TV Academy and to have our work honored with Emmy recognition. But unlike other shows that honor work in many categories from concept to various crafts, and in many genres from pure advertising to cause and public service, we have simply one category: Outstanding Commercial. Period. And there is really no guidance or curation in terms of what this means. It is up to each individual Emmy voter to decide the criteria on their own. As you can see just from last year’s nominees, ‘best’ can manifest itself in a heartbreaking cause such as Sandy Hook, a brilliant calling out of social behavior as illustrated by P&G’s ‘The Look,’ to a joyful purely entertaining spot for Jeep with Bill Murray. It is quite a challenge to bestow ‘Outstanding’ on any one spot in particular. It becomes a uniquely personal call for each voter to make. But this is our cross to bear and until we are able to perhaps add an additional award, each year brings important choices.”

In terms of the pandemic, Carter related, “I think we have proven that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. We as producers have had to work smarter and more nimbly in order to continue to work at all, let alone at award-winning levels. And brilliant work continues to be done. Some of it, in spite of the challenges and then some projects that actually lean in and embrace the pandemic. I think this is another layer for judges to consider THIS YEAR in determining ‘best’ but for me it is always some sort of combo between thought and craft, and the ability to draw out human emotion, whether it be laughter and joy, or tears of thoughtfulness. That said, I pray to ALL the gods that this year will forever be known as a unique one in terms of the extraordinary challenges we have faced.”

Relative to brands taking a stand, Carter looks for genuine commitment. “It is really hard not to look through a filter of cynicism when brands take on cause. Brands need to beware the bullshit meter and navigate these waters carefully (as P&G and Nike and a few others have done for years). Causes, on the other hand (The Sandy Hooks of the world) have always figured strongly in advertising. I cite, the tearful Native American bemoaning litter, ‘Only you can prevent forest fires’ and ‘This is your brain on drugs’ as some of the strongest “advertising” messages ever created. And I think there will always be a place for this. Perhaps now more than ever.”

At the same time, Carter added, entertainment, humor and the value of a welcomed distraction to momentarily escape this past year’s realities is also valuable--and merits consideration when judging the entries. Balancing all this in assessing worthwhile work remains at the heart of the judging challenge, he noted.

Peer feedback
As for how the events of the past year will inform their primetime commercial Emmy judging, TV Academy Commercials Peer Group members Parsons from KEVIN and Albanese of David&Goliath provided feedback.

Parsons said, “The work produced this past year is a testament to the incredibly talented and creative people in our business who found a way through the difficulties and restrictions of the pandemic. Making work has always been challenging but then to add in the pandemic restrictions ...people had to work harder and longer  and invent new ways to make it happen while keeping everyone safe and healthy.  Being quarantined also meant people had to find ways to create that magic that happens when everyone is in the studio together or on set relating to each other while making the work.

“Having more time for introspection especially with the events of the past year deepened my appreciation and love of film and its ability to heal and inspire through storytelling and making magical visuals.  A lot of really good work was made and knowing a little of what people went through to make it makes me even more in awe of the teams that brought it to life and affects how I judge the work.”

Albanese offered, “As always, a great concept still needs to be the foundation of these stories and is at the core of how work is appraised.  But the craft behind making great stories was challenged this year in a way no one ever anticipated.  The ingenuity in adapting to monumental shifts in how work needed to be envisioned, planned, and executed was extraordinary, and certainly influences my appreciation for it.”

Taylor-Hayford added, "The pandemic, recession and racial justice movement definitely created unique challenges but it’s critical that we preserve a high bar for ideas that acknowledge our context, thoughtfully challenge our perceptions and move our industry forward. The work must be so well executed that it doesn’t reveal any of the challenges "behind-the-scenes" so I expect to maintain a bias for a very high degree of craft in execution when judging."

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