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PORTNOW & EHRLICH: GRAMMY TRUTH AND ALTERNATIVE FACTS

This is the 36th year that Ken Ehrlich has served as producer or executive producer of the annual Grammy telecast. It’s the 15th year he’s teamed with Neil Portnow, the Recording Academy’s President/CEO, in steering the show. (In the 15 years before that, he teamed, less harmoniously, with Portnow’s predecessor, Mike Greene.)

Ken and Neil are both extremely busy this time of year, but they made time to talk with HITS, which assigned the task to the Grammy Whisperer. They discussed the change in Grammy hosts, the move back to Sunday night that led to 60 Minutes being shrunk to half its customary length (causing Don Hewitt to roll over in his grave), the upcoming Bee Gees salute and how they still feel the pain about the technical snafu that marred Adele’s performance last year. 


You’ll have a new host, James Corden. How did that come about?
Neil Portnow: LL Cool J—Todd—was the right person at the right time. We had five incredible years with him. That said, after a certain period of time, it gets a little predictable. So my thought was it might be time to think about other options. Because of James’ tremendous success, because he is so musical and relates so personally to music and musicians, I raised a conversation with CBS. They got into it immediately. We all came to a meeting of the minds that this was a good idea.

Ken Ehrlich: Corden is so current musically, it just felt like a really good match for us. He is all about today—his understanding and appreciation of what’s going on currently in music.

In a 16-year stretch from 1987 through 2002, comedians hosted the telecast 15 times. Then you moved away from that. Why?
Portnow: We’ve had some hosts who were comedians but maybe didn’t have that extra piece, which is the relationship to music and musicians. Yes, you can be funny, but there is a difference between being funny and being funny in a way that ties things together; that relates to all the people on the stage. That’s a pretty special breed. Also, you might think that anybody you would ask to host the Grammys would say yes, but it doesn’t work that way. I think a lot of this came out of the famous David Letterman Uma/Oprah” situation, which really hurt his career. I think a lot of people think there’s a lot of risk when you go out there to host any of the major shows.

In announcing the host switch, you seemed to go out of your way to praise LL.
Portnow: He’s part of our family, and he always will be. He went above and beyond the call of duty with us. I don’t know what we would have done were he not with us the year we lost Whitney the night before the show.

The show will air live on the West Coast for the second year in a row. Ken, you have expressed misgivings about that in the past. Are you happy with it now?
Ehrlich: I am now. Initially, I felt there was an advantage in the [three-hour tape] delay in that people across the country could read about the show online and get a sense of what was going on, and that would give them even more reason to tune in. What I didn’t factor in was the fact that the network repeats the show on the West Coast. Now, it works both ways.

I think viewers expect award shows to be live in this day and age.
Ehrlich: Spontaneity and unpredictability have always been a factor with the Grammys. It’s why people watch live events. This just adds to that factor.

Has Univision also switched over to a live telecast of the Latin Grammys?
Portnow: Yes, as of the show that aired in November.

The Grammy telecast will be back on Sunday night. You’ll also have a red-carpet show on CBS at 7:30 ET. That entailed CBS asking one of its signature shows to give up a half-hour.
Portnow: We’ve always believed that a red-carpet pre-show on our network would be appropriate and well-received. But 60 Minutes has always been the lead-in to the Grammy show when it’s on Sunday, and it has been really difficult to make any alteration there. Last year, because we were on a Monday, we didn’t have that issue. We were able to go ahead and do what we—CBS included—all wanted to do. It’s been frustrating for CBS too, to play to a lot of masters. The results (with the pre-show) last year were quite wonderful; everyone was pleased with it. So this was the solution: to cut that 60 Minutes to 30 minutes. I don’t know that they’ll call it 30 Minutes that week, which would be funny.

That makes a statement about how important the Grammys are to CBS, because 60 Minutes has an even longer history at the network than you do. [The newsmagazine debuted in 1968. The Grammys first aired on CBS in 1973.]
Portnow: They are an institution. We wish everybody could have everything every year, but this is just one of those situations where you’ve got two great entities; two historic and important ones. We think this will be a really elegant solution. We look forward to seeing how it all turns out.

Two of the first six artists that you announced as performers, John Legend and Bruno Mars, aren’t nominees this year, at least as performers. (Mars is nominated for co-producing a track on Adele’s album.) What are the criteria for booking a non-nominee?
Portnow: The core of the bookings on the show come from the nominations. That being said, not everything that happens in music happens in [the eligibility] period. So from time to time, we’ll step outside of the nominations pool to bring in other artists to do things that we think ought to be in there. When it’s all said and done, I’d like people to feel like they watched the greatest live 31/2 hour concert and celebration of music on the planet. The question is: how do you achieve that?

Don’t you have to be careful not to stray too far from the nominations or you make the nominations process seem sort of irrelevant?
Portnow: Yeah. Correct. And believe me, that’s always top of mind. We always want to have that careful balance. I think we’ve been able to achieve that quite well.

Until about 10 years ago, all performances had to be current nominees doing nominated songs. Did that restriction ever keep you from doing something you wanted to do?
Ehrlich: There were times when things were offered to us or there were things we wanted to do that we weren’t able to do. I think it’s to the credit of the organization and to Neil and the people that work with him that we’ve loosened that a bit. I can remember a U2 or a Bono situation where there was something I would have loved to have done, and we just weren’t able to do it.

There was a sound problem during Adele’s performance last year. It’s live television; it happens. In 2004, there was a sound problem during Celine Dion’s performance. How agonizing is that for you? What do you say to an artist after something like that happens?
Ehrlich: It’s brutal. As much as I like to remember the triumphs and the great Grammy moments, those two—and there have been others—just stick in my craw. What you say to an artist is “I’m sorry.” That’s all you can say. There are a few moments of recriminations and regrets, and what could you have done differently? In both of those cases that you bring up, they were totally human error. People are human. Did we fire the guy [in the Adele situation] who dropped the mic in the piano and it shifted and moved out of the cradle? No. By the way, to this day I’m not sure who exactly that was—we have a large audio team. These guys year in and year out accomplish the impossible. The fact that they blew this is sad and it’s hurtful, but we move on. But I’ll tell you, I’m really looking forward to making it up to her this year.

Do your personalities and skillsets balance each other?
Portnow: I think so. Our personalities are different and our styles are a little different. Between the two of us, sometimes we’re like an old married couple. I think we feed well off each other’s point-of-view and passion and perspective.

Ehrlich: It’s really been a delight to work with him. He’s an honorable, trusting, loyal friend as well as a partner. I’ll say this: It was certainly a breath of fresh air [when he came in]—and a welcome change from before.

Many other awards shows now present unexpected collaborations; what you call Grammy Moments.
Ehrlich: If our Grammy Moments are successful, it’s because we think about them. I look at what other shows do, and often I’m proud of the standard that we set. Sometimes I look at it and I scratch my head because I’m not sure they didn’t book them on the basis of a couple of names, and they really didn’t know what to do with them musically.

The “In Memoriam” spots on all awards shows are accompanied by Grammy-type singers singing Grammy-type songs.
Ehrlich: I initially resisted the idea of having an “In Memoriam” segment—I fought it. I could see it for the other shows. They don’t have wall-to-wall music and entertainment like our show does. One year [2003], they basically mandated that we’re doing it. They sat me down—I think they may have tied me up—and said this year you’re going to do it. I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it, but only if we can build music around it.’ That was the year Joe Strummer died, and we had The Clash on. From that moment on, I not only embraced it, but we owned it. The year after we did it, all of a sudden on the Emmys, I saw Sarah McLachlan do “I Will Remember You.” Nobody had done that [a music performance over the montage] up until that time.

How will you honor the many people who died last year without making the show too somber? You have characterized the Grammys as a celebration of the year in music. How much death can you have before you’ve turned the celebration into a downer?
Ehrlich: You have to be careful; I think we bordered on it last year. But between Dec. 31 [2015] and the telecast on Feb. 15, so many icons died: Natalie Cole, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Maurice White. We knew we were going to do an “In Memoriam” segment. All of a sudden, I got a call from Irving [Azoff]. He said the guys [Eagles] would be willing to come together to honor Glenn. This band had never done the Grammy Awards. We had Gaga to honor Bowie. We did a beautiful thing with Pentatonix and Stevie Wonder to pay tribute to Maurice.

Last year, you capped the “In Memoriam” spot with an extended clip of Natalie Cole singing “Unforgettable.” Some saw that as a slight. I think you may have created a situation whereby if someone is in the “In Memoriam” spot and doesn’t receive a stand-alone tribute, it’s seen as a slight.
Ehrlich: Yeah. It’s a creative decision. We hope that people respect it, but we know that ultimately we can’t please everyone.

Is there a rule that an artist can’t perform on another show within a certain time frame?
Portnow: We never have a mandate about what an artist can or cannot do before or after the Grammys. By the way, I’m a huge fan of music on television. I would be hypocritical if I then said you can’t do anything else if you want to do our show. But what we do think—and it’s common sense—is that we want something special and unique. We want something that hasn’t been seen many times before—that might be unexpected, unpredictable, gutsy. So if an artist has done performances on other venues and shows that are close to us, to come on the Grammys and essentially do the same-old, same-old isn’t necessarily a thrilling proposition for us.

What do you tell artists and managers about other shows? Do you make clear that the more other shows they perform on, the less you’re going to be interested?
Ehrlich: It’s not quite that black and white. It all depends on how close to our show those appearances are; and what they’re doing on other shows—which by the way we don’t dictate, but it affects what we want to do with them. I look at our show as being at the end of the awards-show year. The VMAs are in August, the CMAs are in November; I won’t even dignify a couple of the other ones. When I meet with artists or talk to managers or publicists or label people, I don’t really want to do what an artist did on another show three or four months ago. Either come to me and let’s talk about it and maybe I’ll ask you to save something, or let’s come up with something that’s going to make your appearance on the Grammys special so viewers who want to see something special aren’t disappointed.

Portnow: A lot of artists will think this through in advance. If you’re an artist that is of a stature where you think there’s a likely possibility that you have a Grammy performance, you’re going to think through over the course of a year, how am I going to play this out and what am I going to do and what can I save for the Grammy show that’s going to be the highlight that I want for my career and that they need for their show?

You put out feelers during the year to some key artists. Do you wait until Nominations Day to make formal offers?
Ehrlich: Even though I’ll talk to people starting in September/October or maybe earlier, we don’t really extend a formal offer until the day the nominations come out. On Nominations Day, I will confirm five, six, seven acts that we’ve been talking to and hopefully already have some ideas about what we want to do. And then I’ll probably confirm two or three more. By the end of the week of the nominations, I’ve got 10 acts booked. Our show traditionally has anywhere from 16 to 20 performances. That means I’m halfway there. I like to take some time that weekend, maybe even a week or two later. I’ll study the list. The ideas will begin to come to me about who I can pair up.

Have there been any changes in the way the booking process works over the years?
Ehrlich: In years past, the nominations would come out and we would get 30-60 calls from people saying, “We want to be on the Grammys.” We don’t get those calls anymore. It’s because people know that our process is different.

How do you balance the show?
Ehrlich: I’ll watch the bookings—what do I not have enough of? Where are we a little too heavy? It’s not clinical, but there’s a little bit of science to it. Where are we in terms of diversity? Where are we in terms of women? Where are we in terms of one area vs. another? Where am I in terms of tempo vs. ballads. These are all factors that need to be addressed. Call me old-school, or even elder school, but this is a variety show. But it’s a variety show that has variety for hopefully 25 million people.

You generally lock the show four or five days out?
Ehrlich: I’d like to lock the show a little further out than that, but sometimes it’s not up to me. Ask Rihanna.

Ken, how important has this show been in your career?
Ehrlich: We do other shows during the year. This is obviously the biggest show we do. It’s been my calling card for 37 years. We eat, live and breathe the show. From September to February, this is what it’s all about.

There’s a rumor that the Grammy telecast may go back to New York next year for the first time since 2003.
Portnow: Stay tuned for an announcement on that.

Two nights after the Grammys, you’ll tape a show saluting the Bee Gees. This will be your fifth salute to an artist, following Whitney, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder.
Ehrlich: These shows allow us to bring together people from several different genres and generations to salute an icon. We do a little bit of that within each show, but to be able to have two hours to do it is a blessing.

Portnow: It gives an opportunity to be “edutainment”—it’s not only entertainment, it’s educational too. When we book these shows, we book them in a very multi-generational fashion. In certain cases, it’s pretty interesting—and maybe even shocking—that some of the newest generation of artists may not even be familiar with some of the people being honored. Therefore, it becomes sort of a learning possibility for them to get excited about an artist that maybe they didn’t know.

Ken, you have a history with the Bee Gees.
Ehrlich: When I was doing Soundstage for PBS in Chicago in 1975, they came and did an episode. They were wonderful to work with. We developed a relationship. In 1979, they asked for me to produce the Music for UNICEF show. That was a big break for me. They are probably as responsible, or more responsible, than any other act for what I like to call my rise to the middle of this business.

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