Overall, the 69th Annual Emmy Awards felt like it was doing its level best to underscore diversity on Sunday night. Virtually every set of presenters featured a person of color, or two in many cases; in addition there were several honors that went (most deservedly, but deservedly isn’t always what decides these things) to people of color.
But perception is often what matters, and even just one misstep can mar an entire evening. Specifically, the Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series, won by Sterling K. Brown for his This Is Us role. It was the first time in 19 years that a black man has won that particular award (the last one was the magnificent Andre Braugher in 1998 for Homicide: Life on the Street) and Brown is only the fourth black man to win the award at all (the others are Bill Cosby and James Earl Jones). So it was an important moment, and Brown … got played off. And when he refused to leave the stage, they dimmed the lights on him and pulled back the camera and finally shut off the audio.
Rude, to say the least. Whatever time might have been saved of airtime couldn’t have been worth trashing an entire evening … and yet, there he was getting played off.
But was it racist? That’s one of the charges that was instantly leveled and continues to be discussed on Monday. Was it passively, or actively racist — particularly when it appeared that Nicole Kidman, who won an Emmy moments before for her Big Little Lies role got what felt like an obscene (and dull) amount of time, with no attempt at playing off?
Let’s look at the numbers. I crunched the time multiple lead actors and actresses were given from the time their name was read to the first words they spoke to the time they were played off (or not) and here’s what it boils down to:
Julia Louis Dreyfus
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, Veep
From moment of reading name to first words on stage: 27 seconds
Final thank you: 1:40 (one minute, 40 seconds)
Played off? No
Outstanding Lead Actor – Limited Series, Movie, The Night Of
From moment of reading name to first words on stage: 22 seconds
Final thank you: 1:47
Played off? No
Outstanding Lead Actress – Limited Series, Movie, Big Little Lies
From moment of reading name to first words on stage: 25 seconds
Final thank you: 3:10
Played off? No
Sterling K. Brown
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, This Is Us
From moment of reading name to first words on stage: 44 seconds
Play-off Music begins: 2:42
Audio cut out: 2:56
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, The Handmaid’s Tale
From moment of reading name to first words on stage: 28 seconds
Played off? Yes, starting at 2:04
So here’s what we can know from this:
- Yes, Brown got less time than Kidman, by approximately 30 seconds.
- Brown wasn’t the only lead actor/actress in a key series played off.
- Kidman took more time than anybody without being played off, but Moss (who is white) also got played off after less time than Brown.
Should there been a little more leeway with Brown? Probably so: His win was historic and he is beloved. If an actor doesn’t take a music cue, unless they’ve gone off on a Unabomber rant or your show is desperately over time — and this Emmys was not — they should be given more leeway.
That said: Ultimately the difference between Brown and Kidman is 30 seconds (3:10 vs. 2:42). Brown took more time to start speaking because he paused when he got to the stage to enjoy the applause. And let’s face it: Brown is awesome, but Kidman is — even though TV is in a golden age — a star. A celebrity. With an Oscar win. You can be damn sure if Denzel Washington had won for This Is Us, he would not have been played off. For all we know there’s a stipulation in Kidman’s contract that insists she will not be played off if she attends the ceremony. She just has clout. And I’m not saying this is right, but this is how Hollywood works. For now, Hollywood remains partial to (white) Oscar winners who bring in the big bucks.
Also worth considering: Brown’s show This Is Us was a rare broadcast TV win, and on NBC … which was not the network that was airing the awards. CBS and NBC are direct competitors; why would CBS give an NBC show more free airtime than was necessary?
There’s one final element to this: Show producers want to end on time. They do not want to eat into affiliates’ news hours; affiliates, if they choose, can just cut out of the national broadcast to start the news and that’s pretty bad for an awards show. So keeping it close to ending on time is important. If you note, of all the lead actors who we looked into — only two got played off … the two closest to the end of the show.
Ultimately, this is a balancing act: how much time to give an actor or a show to reap their benefits and thank everybody. But it is also up to an actor to know how to modulate themselves. You should stand there and drink it in. You should thank everybody you can. You should acknowledge those who came before you. But you gotta do it quick. TV and movies and all of Hollywood — are a business. We can of course be outraged. In this case, though, it seems questionable that it was about the color of Brown’s skin.