CBS' SUSSMAN ON MAKING THE GRAMMY SHOW “INTIMATE AND POWERFUL”

On the Monday that followed Taylor Hawkins’ death and an Academy Awards ceremony about which none of the day-after buzz concerned a film, Jack Sussman was in his office nailing down the final week of plans for Sunday’s 64th annual Grammy Awards. He knew there were some tough discussions ahead with the Foo Fighters’ camp about their involvement in the telecast.

“I think we need to give them a little time to think it through, and we need a little time to gather our crew together and think about what would be appropriate,” said Sussman, CBS’s EVP, Specials, Music and Live Events. “And we'll have to have some conversation with their team about what is the right thing, an appropriate thing to do to honor his memory. He was beloved by the music community, and this is the biggest night for the music community all year. And I'm sure we'll think of something appropriate to do.”

From there, Sussman talked about the nuts and bolts of the ceremony's being held at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, the new production team and Jon Batiste’s shot at the next level of stardom. We’re damn sure he’d rather be watching Armando Bacot highlights from UNC’s victory over St. Peter’s on Sunday than answer our questions, but he obliged after the HITS staff promised to paint tar heels on our cheeks this week.

Obviously, you don’t want anyone going onstage and physically attacking someone like we saw with Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars. How do you make sure something like that doesn't happen on the Grammys?
It's live television. Anything can happen, and something usually does. And I think you just need to work with a team that can handle any given situation at any given moment in time. And trust me, over the years we've had plenty of those. Not everything goes according to plan, right? Not everything goes according to the way you rehearse it. If you surround yourself with a group of TV professionals, you figure out how to handle stuff like that.

Last year, COVID restrictions meant a lot of rethinking how to present the show. Are there things from that show, how to stage things or how to present certain artists, that might carry over this year?
I'm not sure there’s anything I learned, but it reinforced my thinking that a great Grammy moment doesn't need a hundred dancers and pyro. When you're really talented and you're well produced and directed, a Grammy moment can be what most people might think is a small moment, but it becomes unbelievably memorable.

Do you think we'll see more of that this year?
I think it challenges artists to think differently and allows them to be more creative and not have to think that everything has to be, you know, boom! It can be intimate and yet, so very powerful. And I think you'll see a combination of that on Sunday night.

What challenges have presented themselves in moving the show to Las Vegas?
Just the very nature of moving it from its traditional home makes it a bit of a challenge wherever you go. The beauty of the move is that the footprint fits perfectly into the MGM Grand Garden. So we didn't have to go through any redesign or reconstruction. We just put it on a truck and moved it a few hours east.

Last year was the first for Ben Winston and his team. Do you feel like we'll see more of his style this year?
I'm sure you will. Every producer, every director brings their own point of view to a given moment in a show. And the hope is that they've strung together enough of those moments to make it a true show and not 18 or 19 or 20 individual performances, that you're actually watching something as a music fan and a music-on-television fan that has a beginning, middle and end.

Ben worked on the show for a few years before the transition, so he knew a lot of the players. He very smartly sat with everybody over those years and became a bit of a sponge and learned who those people were. And you'll see a handful of them on the show behind the scenes this year. He's put together a combination of those people and some new people to create a new and exciting Grammy team that will continue to take the show into the future.

We've seen Raj Kapoor listed as showrunner, a job I’m not sure existed previously.
Ben had some other priorities he was dealing with and although he is the guy steering the boat from the very top, Raj was the guy that on a day-to-day basis has been maintaining the integrity of the brand and moving the show forward. Ben was very smart and very generous to bring Raj in that way. They make a great team along with [producer] Jesse Collins, [director] Hamish Hamilton and [head writer/producer] David Wild—that crew of people is second to none in making amazing television.

Eric Cook, who leads the operational end of it, is back, as is Fatima Robinson, who's one of the most creative choreographers and artists on the planet. And Patrick Menton's back as our head of talent and artist relations.


Ben Winston, Raj Kapoor, Jesse Collins, Hamish Hamilton

Does the Academy have a point person for all of this, a day-to-day person involved in the creative development of the show?

We get together on a weekly basis to talk about what's transpired. Everybody's in the loop. People have their opinions, but ultimately it’s Ben and the team who create those moments and the show. There's a television committee on the Recording Academy side, but at the end of the day we’re tasked with making a television show, and that's left up to the television professionals.

The Recording Academy shook up its executive ranks over the last year. How has that affected how you put together a Grammy show?
We’ve had a working relationship with Harvey Mason [Jr.] for a few years so that was kind of smooth. He brought in a couple of co-presidents and they're doing great work over there, moving the Academy forward. We're in business with them because they are the Recording Academy. The upside to broadcasting the Grammy Awards is the Recording Academy; but the downside to broadcasting the Grammy Awards is that the Recording Academy is your partner. What I mean by that is, as a broadcaster, how cool would it be, like some of these other award shows, to make stuff up as you go along? We can't do that with the Grammys because we're in business with the Recording Academy. We have to live up to their legitimacy and we have to live with the music of the year and the nominations and produce a show that maintains the integrity of the brand and still entertains the audience.

We pay a lot of money for that show so it's not just a rubber-chicken luncheon where they hand out awards and we're broadcasting it. Our responsibility is to maintain the integrity of the brand, which is why we want to be in business with them and produce a show that millions of people will tune in to and stay with throughout the evening.

What’s going into the decisions over which awards get shown on air after the Big Four?
We have a tradition and probably will stick with it for a while. We have to come up with a handful that we think makes sense depending on the year and make sure that it's a diverse set of awards.

We want to get as many artists that we think will be in the building an opportunity to show that they were nominated. We try to mix it up once we know who the Big Four nominees are so it's not just the same group of artists getting exposure.

So what’s the effect of having the Big Four categories doubling in size?
It gives you an opportunity to hopefully put more nominated performers on the show, and it allows the Academy to sort of expand its diversity.

One thing that's been great about the evolution of the Grammy Awards is the openness of what can be performed on the show. But which artists who might have been seen as right for January might not be right for April?
You wind up with a variety of decisions from artists in collaboration with the creative team who think this is a moment in time to bring something brand-spanking-new to fans. Other artists will think, even though I've done this particular song in other moments, whether on a late-night talk show or another awards show, when you do it on the Grammy stage, it’s unique. And we challenge them: If you want to do something you've done before, you have to bring it to this party in a different and bigger way. And when I say bigger, I don't necessarily mean in size; I just mean in creativity, because you might have done a song on SNL three months ago, but that stage is about twice as big as my office. When you do it on the Grammy stage, you have a bigger opportunity to blow it up and make it even more special than you might have three months ago at 12:15, in the middle of the night.

One crazy thing on the promo side is that you have the most-nominated artist (11) for this year’s Grammys as the focal point for the ads for the NCAA men’s Final Four in New Orleans. I’m not sure most people know Jon Batiste is the star of those ads.
All I can tell you is that I think Jon Batiste will hopefully have a life-changing moment on Sunday night. There is not a greater guy to work with, a more talented guy to work with, one of the nicest guys to work with. He's like the happiest man in show business, and the beauty of it is that he’s so über-talented. I'm so excited to give him this platform so the world can see who this wonderful human is and how talented he is and what great artistry and joy he can bring to anybody who watches him.

The Oscars played around with how they seated people. Will the Grammys be a return to the standard arena seating arrangement?
There's a plan to mix it up a little bit. I think the team learned a lot [from last year’s ceremony] about how you can break the mold, try to do things that are different but still unbelievably engaging in a way that makes people at home say, “Hey, that's Billie Eilish over there sitting next to Jon Batiste right down from Carrie Underwood and Lil Nas X. How cool is that?”

Will we continue to see the original so-called Grammy moments of people who wouldn't normally play together appearing together onstage?
I don't know if you'll see people that wouldn't normally appear together, but you will see some great moments of artists coming together and sharing their musical chemistry.

Coming out of the pandemic, the industry has shown a real affinity for data and using it for decisions on single releases, tours, TV appearances… How is data being used in how you set up the show?
We spend a ton of time, money and effort driving people to eight o'clock on Sunday night. So you want to give them something to look forward to and keep them for as long as you possibly can—you want to start to tell a story at eight o'clock and hope you give people enough breadcrumbs to stick around after the commercial break. You want to make your rundown diverse, but it's got to have an ebb and flow. You can't keep the pedal down with intense, heavy-duty rock ’n’ roll; you’ve got to give your audience a chance to breathe and go, “Wow, that's a really beautiful moment. Now I’m ready to get my head blown off again.” It's a challenge because you're dependent on the year in music and you're dependent on the artists that can be in the room. And although each of those individual artists is worried about their four or five minutes, the team needs to worry about the ebb and flow of the show. What takes you from act one to act two? Every year it's a big jigsaw puzzle with really amazing pieces that you have to put together.

Is the opener set?
You and I are talking at 10 o'clock in the morning on Monday. As of now it’s set, but anything could happen between now and Sunday night.

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