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SUSSMAN’S ASSESSMENT

 

It’s two days after the Grammys, and CBS’ live events honcho Jack Sussman is talking about the telecast like a proud parent. He keys in on one theme in particular—diversity.

“When you get into the minutiae of the show, it is one of the most diverse shows in primetime entertainment television,” he asserts. “I can’t speak to the Grammy process, but I can speak to the TV show, and I’m proud of what we do on this show.

“You read different points of view as to what [diversity] means. This show has stood the test of time and grown in its attractiveness to a lot of different communities.”

As CBS’ EVP of Specials, Music and Live Events, Sussman followed up the 2/12 Grammy Awards by overseeing the 2/14 taping of the network’s Bee Gees special, set to air in the spring. We started with the Bee Gees and worked our way through tributes, Beyoncé and ratings.


When you look at the staggering number of albums and artists celebrating 50 or 40 or 25th anniversaries, what made The Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever attractive to CBS?
With any of these shows, we start by talking about what would be an interesting repertoire and how can we attract enough credible, young—and old—artists to participate. Look at the Bee Gees overall and the soundtrack, which, until Thriller, was the biggest-selling record in history, you’ve got a diverse group of recognizable hits that run the gamut from ballads to uptempo dance music.

 
The Bee Gees tribute on the Grammys ate up a healthy chunk of airtime. Is that sort of promotion necessary?
When you have an audience of 26m people and have an opportunity to plant the seed of a big event, why would you want to miss that opportunity?

 

 

 

As you mention, the ratings were strong —26m viewers, though the 18-49 demo is not as big as it was two years ago.
When you wake up to that kind of number, you feel good about what you did. These days, when you’re up year to year or over two years, that’s a great thing. I don’t want to say [demo ratings] are less important, but we did just fine. There were lots of every demo that came to this show. It was a success. End of story.

You’re involved in the planning process from day one so you see how these performances develop. Did anything come to life onstage in a way that took you by surprise?
You hear some great ideas in phone conversations and via email. You look at them and you’re not sure how they’re going to develop and get onto your stage. You get into the room and put those artists together with our creative team—lighting designers, staging designers, the director.

When you sit down with Beyoncé and her team for that first conversation, you’re really not sure what she’s describing. She has a great idea in her mind’s eye and as she develops it, it gets bigger and better. Put it in a rehearsal stage and then Staples Center and then it has a life of its own. It was magnificent performance at her full power

The show obviously had a lot of tributes and it felt like you did something unique this year by paying tribute to Sharon Jones and having her horn section of the Dap-Kings play with Sturgill Simpson. How did that one come together?
First of all, you have to make sure it makes sense musically. Once it makes sense musically, you have to think about how you present it for television. You have to make decisions with the idea that you want to uphold the integrity of the Grammy brand and make it a great experience for everybody in the room. But the bottom line is how does it play on the flat screen in people’s homes. That has to be your goal. 

Paying tribute to Sharon was deserved, but what was the reasoning behind no Leonard Cohen tribute? He’s certainly a bigger name.
Go back and look at the list of people in the “In Memoriam” section. There were so many people we could have created tributes for—we lost so many great people. You have to make hard choices. Plus, it’s not 100% objective. There’s a lot of subjectivity in this process. Nobody is saying we thought Sharon Jones was a better idea—nobody ever said that or thought that. And by the way it wasn’t a Sharon Jones tribute, it was Sturgill’s performance. We blended it and Ken [Ehrlich] found a way to put it together but I don’t think anybody would see that as a Sharon Jones tribute. 

The good news is the show exposed the audience to someone they might not know. Same with William Bell, who had a great look.
Watching him with Gary Clark Jr. in that moment of performing caught a lot of people’s attention. That was a wonderfully pure piece of beautiful music by those two musicians. It was set up in a way that showed two artists who are connected and how that can be a beautiful piece of television with a great song.

 
The Time was given a considerable amount of space. It was a lot different than last year’s Bowie tribute, but why was so much of the Prince tribute given over to The Time?
To me, that was all one moment. The Time with Bruno Mars was a moment to talk about a time when Prince was the driving force behind a moment—it was different from the other tributes. You don’t want to be predictable. You want to create unique moments. Think “x artist died and he/she/they had great repertoire so we’ll take four or five artists and mash up some of their biggest hits” is a good idea as an idea. But you have to be thinking about programming and the viewer on their couch. You don’t want to use a cookie cutter mold. Look at how different Adele’s George Michael tribute was from Bruno’s Prince. 

There was a lot of enthusiasm expressed over seeing Chance the Rapper win Best New Artist. While the performances certainly reveal the diversity of modern popular music, is there any sense that giving out a few more awards on air might show the diversity of what the Grammys are honoring?
There are plenty of categories, but at the end of the day our job is not to decide how Grammys are given out, but what’s the best live music experience celebrating the year in music for a big, wide broadcast audience. We try to do as many unique moments year after year and nobody does that better than Ken. That’s what people talk about the next day, next week, the next year.

When you’re in [Staples Center] during the commercial breaks and you see some of those historic performances, that’s what you remember. You don’t remember who won Best Song that year or Best Rock Album the year before. You remember what you saw on that stage.

That stage next year could well be in New York.
As you know, we’re thinking about it. 

What challenges immediately present themselves should you chose to do it there?
Moving an entire organization and production group to New York—that’s a challenge for the Recording Academy. You’re in New York in February. That’s obviously a potential challenge. Working in Madison Square Garden will be an amazing experience, but it’s been different from what we’ve been doing. We have to navigate that really early to make sure we can do everything we want to do in that building in a way people have come to expect from us. I’m sure that won’t be an issue, but it’s not been done in several years and the Garden’s been renovated. We can make a great show there if we decide to go down that road.

It’s not getting a lot of notice but it seems like the Grammys are attracting more thoughtful—and musical—commercials. Is CBS playing up that angle to advertisers?
There is a great attraction to this show because of the diversity and strength of its audience. That makes it a place where you can show your new product and bring it to an audience that’s basically hip and cool and loves music. That covers a lot of advertisers. 

Ken Ehrlich was saying prior to this year’s show that it stood to the best he has done. Your thoughts?
I think he did an amazing job this year. The Grammys have grown in its 59 years into a significant pop-culture moment. Pierre Cossette nurtured it and developed it for decades, and Ken has perfected it.

It’s never easy. Things change while you’re developing them. Great ideas sometimes shift and become something different and some never come to fruition. It’s challenging. Not meant for the faint of heart. 

 

 

 



Photos by Chapman Baehler

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