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JACK SUSSMAN GETS
HIS GAME FACE ON

In any given year, Jack Sussman, CBS Entertainment’s EVP, Specials, Music and Live Events, will tell you that the network’s role in the Grammy Awards is to present a show that reflects the year in music, protects and extends the Grammy brand and entertains viewers. Holding up a mirror to all that has happened since the last Grammy telecast, especially within the Recording Academy, is not the responsibility or the mission of the network, according to Sussman.

That so many female artists have received nominations this year is the result of “really a wonderful year for women in music,” he says. “The television show that the producers and the network present can’t speak to or be accountable for the voting process, the voting body, the nominations, etc. We can only be responsible for what goes on air. When you look at the last decade of shows, I will bet you that [the Grammys] is the most diverse of any awards show, probably as close as you can get 50/50 representation of men and women.”

It’s close. Last year’s show had 17 women performers, among them P!nk, Kesha and Alessia Cara, plus the female-fronted 
Little Big Town, among the nearly 40 acts that performed.

“There’s a distinct difference between the nominations process and the production,” Sussman adds. “You have to create a television show that’s made for live TV. Our goal is to get viewers to watch and celebrate the year in music, using the nominations as a foundation, and grow it from there.”

This year’s telecast will be the 16th and final awards show overseen by the triumvirate of Sussman, who has been on the team since 1999, Recording Academy CEO and President Neil Portnow and Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich. During their time together, the network and Academy experimented with a nominations concert show that underperformed and a series of tribute shows that have done reasonably well in the ratings. They have an Aretha Franklin tribute coming up on 3/10 and will soon be taping a Motown special for later in the year.

“Neil brought stability to the organization; he helped grow the organization,” Sussman says. “He helped craft some new ideas within the organization and he’s been a great partner. He made it easier to work together, and he understands that our job is to work together, extend the Grammy brand and retain their credibility while we make an event for television that people will want to watch. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

That’s always the big question. What do people want to watch in any given year? The show went on a ratings roller-coaster ride that was leveling off with a viewership of around 24 million over several recent years. They hit a dip last year when the show dropped below 20m viewers for the first time in a decade.

The selling point has long been the idea that the Grammy Awards present artists in situations and lineups in which they haven’t been seen on other TV shows. This year, an astounding number of artists new to the Grammy world are contending for major awards, among them Post Malone, Cardi B, Brandi Carlile, H.E.R., Dua Lipa, Bebe Rexha and Travis Scott. Getting those artists’ audiences—all of which largely embrace streaming services over network television—to turn on the TV can be a challenge. Still, Sussman believes the Grammys continue to have an advantage over all other awards shows, especially when it comes to rookies.

“I don’t care what genre you’re in, everybody wants to be a Grammy winner, everybody wants to be on that Grammy stage,” he asserts. “You get to do that for the first time only once. It’s a challenge, and it can be intimidating, but hopefully we work with a group of performers who will experience an amazing moment that they’ll remember the rest of their lives—and give the audience a chance to say, ‘I didn’t know who that performer was but she blew my mind, and I’m going to go find her music.’

“It doesn’t matter what your current single is. It doesn’t really even matter what you’re nominated for. If you get up on that stage and have a great live-event musical moment on that Grammy stage, people will find your music and want to come see you when you tour. It’s really about helping these artists create a moment that becomes instant watercooler conversation and not getting hung up with what’s on the radio.”

To help bolster the TV audience, CBS benefits from having the Super Bowl a week earlier, providing Sussman with the opportunity to use that platform to tease the Grammy telecast. It’s been six years since CBS had back-to-back Sundays of the NFL and the Grammys—they moved the 2016 awards show to Monday—and that 2013 telecast pulled in an impressive 28.37m viewers. The prior Super Bowl-Grammy one-two punch was in 2010, when 25.8m people tuned in.

“I’m not re-creating the wheel,” says Sussman, but with a week to go, you want to drop some big ideas on your viewers. What better place to do that than the Super Bowl? Even if we didn’t have the Super Bowl, we’d do that.”

And it’s possible that the addition of a musician as the host instead of an actor or a comedian might help drive viewer interest as well.

Alicia Keys has won 15 Grammy Awards,” Sussman points out. “When you think of contemporary musicians and the Grammys, you naturally think of Alicia. She’s got everything you want in a host. It seemed like a slam-dunk idea.”

 

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