Neil Portnow on Tonight's Grammy Nominations Show, Controversial Category Changes
Neil Portnow on Tonight's Grammy Nominations Show, Controversial Category Changes

For the fourth Grammy nominations broadcast, the Recording Academy will return Wednesday night to the Nokia Theater from Club Nokia in the same L.A. Live complex. The return is the result of the Recording Academy, executive producer Ken Ehrlich and CBS studying their options when it comes to staging the nomination show.

"We were pleased, but (Club Nokia) is somewhat limiting in production and from a practical standpoint," Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow told billboard.biz. "We thought this year let's go back to something larger that gives us a lot more flexibility. And I think you will see that in the way we can stage various elements."

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Prior to observing a rehearsal Wednesday of "The Grammy Nominations Concert Live" that CBS will broadcast at 10 p.m., Portnow sat down with Billboard.biz to discuss the changes in the nominations process and the Grammy broadcasts.

Billboard.biz: The consolidation of categories to 78 from 109 raised some hackles when it was announced but did it generate any new dialogue?

Neil Portnow: Cases where there were different categories combined it certainly provoked some discussion. You're sort of taking a different mindset about how the committees were to apply the selection process. The dialogue had some different nuances than years past and people had to listen by putting on different hats.

When you say "different mindset," do you have any examples?

One example, and it's a category that did not change, would be shortform music video. In a category like that, the entries will have a broad, wide range, running the gamut from something very simple and inexpensively produced to something very high end with a lot of production values. You'll find disparity in genres - a country music video might look different than something from the hip-hop world or mainstream pop, yet they all sit in one category. When looking at all of them, (a committee member) has to be able to say I'm judging excellence. What do I think deserves the moniker of best video? People have been doing that for years and it's always coming back to the question of excellence.

Obviously video has been involved in discussions like that for years, but now they have them in the various genres. Does it not present a new challenge?
In a number of places, it's business as usual. I will say the comments I heard -- and I really bounce around to survey all of it, but I can't be in all the rooms -- seem to be everything from 'yeah, I get it' and 'it wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be to 'this was challenging.' Some dialogue got a little bit heated at times, a little emotional, passionate -- which I think is a good thing. I didn't hear anybody say I couldn't figure out how to approach this, and there are hundreds of people involved in these processes.

This will be the first year without executive producer John Cossette, who died this summer. How is the show being run?
Basically John's wife Rita is carrying on the business of Cossette Productions. After John's passing they completed the BET Awards, which they've done for years. In terms of our relationship with the family, it's been a beautiful experience. Being loyal as I am and believing that when you are having success -- if ratings are any measure of success and they are a part of it -- if it ain't broke, don't fix it. We are continuing with Cossette Productions and Rita will be heading up that effort and Ken Ehrlich will continue to play his part. Main difference is that John was a co-executive producer of the show and with the loss of John, Ken will serve as sole executive producer, continuing the role he has had. Not really a ton of change in the dynamic.

The nominations show is taking on a bit of a tribute air -- to the late Jerry Leiber and Nick Ashford as well Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message." How do you feel the show is evolving and what is the Academy's role in how it evolves?
It's our fourth show and when you begin something, you begin with certain theories and premises. Some prove out and others do not play the way we thought. It's a natural evolutionary process and we've learned form experience. In terms of the content, one of the things we thought we could perhaps Grammy-phy - if there's such as word -- are some of the elements from the February show. One is our Hall of Fame, the other is 'in memoriam.' On the Oscars and Emmys, maybe they get a great song. In our case, we get to view (in memoriam) as something like a New Orleans funeral - a celebration, a send-off.

We seem to lose on average of 300 people annually from our music community so we can't pay respects to all of them on the show. What sparked this to fruition was the loss of Jerry Lieber and Nick Ashford in such a short time. It happened back to back and was shocking and staggering and sad - it felt like we were hit over the head with a brick. By doing something now, it's timely. I was really pleased delighted and honored that Usher was so moved by this. And then being able to get the partners of these unbelievable writing duos to participate. I think that helps define what we want to do with this show - it's the beginning of Grammy season, folks. We think it's good for the industry as well - shine a light on who we are and what we do. It's all positive.

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