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Viewpoint: Reflections of an awards loser

I’ve lost awards many times. Yet I keep trying. Sure, it’s an honor to be nominated and all that, but we’d all rather win than go home with nothing but ...
October 10, 2019

I’ve lost awards many times. Yet I keep trying. Sure, it’s an honor to be nominated and all that, but we’d all rather win than go home with nothing but a bunch of selfies and a dog-eared program.

The other night at the News and Documentary Emmys in New York [September 24], I watched as truly award-worthy efforts were honored. As a nominee tagging along with a talented director and A-level team, I waited patiently, even anxiously, to find out if we would join the ranks of the winners.

The nearly four-hour presentation gave me lots of time to think about the awards process (and why I didn’t eat more at the reception beforehand). For starters, when each winner is announced, it always seems odd to cheer for a sobering report on such grim topics as war atrocities, racism, or a mass shooting. You’re winning an award because something bad happened to someone else. While it may have been challenging to tell the story, it’s nothing compared to the trials faced by the people you covered, who are likely to be victims or in danger. In some ways, the subjects should get the awards, not the production teams.

Then again, when you look at it, just about any worthwhile documentary or news report is likely to be on a topic that is revelatory or even shocking. We’re in the business to bring something new to the public, and usually it’s something serious. As I flip through the program, the list of subject matter is sobering: Parkland School Shooting. The Killing Rooms of Mosul. Uber Sexual Assault. Documenting Hate.

How do you determine which is “best”? All the topics are important. Some may be more pressing than others, but we’re talking about original work created by dedicated professionals. At this level, the production quality is usually first-rate, with well-told stories, revealing interviews, solid research and informative visuals. And perhaps most important, many of the nominees have an impact on the audience.

Is it enough to say that they’re all winners? Or is that being too politically correct?

I find it heartening that the most appreciative celebrating comes from those who didn’t suspect they would even be nominated because they are so close to the subject matter and were focused on doing something that changed lives – theirs and others. Their efforts often stem from a commitment to the issue and a desire to make a difference, not a desire to get ratings or scoop the competition. You can tell who they are from their emotional acceptance speeches.

There are also cheers for the non-traditional outlets. Where HBO and PBS still take home a ton of Emmys, there are newer players like Vice, Hulu and The New York Times (relatively new to this game, anyway). It’s no longer a surprise that some independent or off-beat effort can snatch a nomination. In my view, this is reason to rejoice. The more places where you can find factual, journalistic excellence, the better.

To keep the awards meaningful, the Emmy voting process has cut down on the number of ties, which made the awards suspect several years ago. However, there is still confusion between the Primetime Emmys’ non-fiction categories and the separate News and Doc Emmys, not to mention Sports and Daytime Emmys.

So, back to the ceremony at Lincoln Center in New York. Did I mention that it’s long? Like, an hour too long for most people’s comfort. At least half the audience leaves the auditorium by the end, which is a shame because that’s when the biggest awards are handed out. It might be time to brainstorm possible solutions, but no one, including me, wants to cheapen the occasion by skipping anyone. Production is a team sport, and all the team members deserve their time in the spotlight.

In the end, my category finally came up. We didn’t win. Maybe I was worn down by the long wait, but my colleagues and I all honestly thought the winner was worthy of the award. We were disappointed, yes, but maybe the cliché is true… it’s an honor just to be nominated.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael Cascio was executive producer of Going to War, which aired on PBS and was nominated for Outstanding Historical Documentary. The winner in the category was HBO’s King in the Wilderness, which Cascio called a “terrific accomplishment of the legendary Kunhardts” – Peter, Teddy and George.

Michael Cascio is president and CEO of M&C Media LLC, where he advises selected media and production partners, and produces documentaries. He is also a guest speaker and writer, whose recent article for the Sunday New York Times revealed how his experience as a backstage janitor prepared him for a career in television. At National Geographic, A&E, Animal Planet, and MSNBC, Cascio has won four Emmys, two Oscar nominations and a “Producer of the Year” award.

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