Jack Sussman, the network's executive vp for specials, music and live events, talks about putting on the Grammys, ACMs, and Victoria's Secret specials.
Jack Sussman keeps a piece of bungee cord on his desk, a souvenir of having leaped off the world’s highest jump in South Africa with his two daughters. “It was unbelievably thrilling,” he says. “A little nerve-racking in the wait, but then over so quickly that you almost weren’t sure it actually happened.”
Sussman’s depiction of his free-falling experience echoes descriptions of producing live TV events, his specialty since he first arrived at CBS 18 years ago — following roles at MTV, VH1, CNN and NBC — and especially since his 2006 promotion to executive vp specials, music and live events. His most high-profile gig is overseeing the Grammy Awards, which will air live from Los Angeles’ Staples Center on Feb. 12, and he also spearheads broadcasts of the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Tonys and Victoria’s Secret specials, among other annual events.
Sussman, 60 — who manages a staff of four at the network’s Radford lot in Studio City, Calif. — also is charged with placing songs on CBS’ dramatic offerings and has run point on several cast-reunion shows. But most of all, he says, “I love live television. You get one chance at it, and everybody’s got to be going in the same direction, because you are walking a tightrope.”
The Grammys recently extended their tenure with CBS through 2026. How do you keep the Grammys special in a sea of music awards shows?
Once you win a Grammy, you’re forever known as a “Grammy-winning” artist in your bio — they don’t [identify] you with any of those other half-a-dozen awards shows and call you by that. The Grammy is the pinnacle of the industry, and we’ve committed to them for a very long time. You know, it’s a lot easier to make a television show when you’re not making the Grammy Awards, because you can just make stuff up and give out awards to anybody you wanted to, but then you don’t have the stature of the Grammy brand.
This year, the nominations align closer to popular tastes than usual, with four of the five Album of the Year nominees also the biggest sellers of 2016. Is it a relief to know complaints of a disconnect might not be as loud? That must make programming the show easier from the outset.
When you can start to craft a show with the likes of a Beyoncé and an Adele, sure, it’s a little easier. But then you’ve got to get your hands dirty deciding what you’re doing in that moment. And that’s just as hard whether you’re dealing with a huge superstar or a critical darling. Our job is to create ideas that aren’t what you’ve seen on every other award show. The downside to the Grammy concept is, unfortunately, based on the [eligibility] process. There could be songs nominated for a Grammy award in February that have been out for 15 months, because the award year goes September to September. By then you’ve probably seen that performer on every late night or morning show and on other specials. We do not want people just showing up and performing their songs the way they do it on tour. There’s no reason to put that on television as an event.
An example of what you’re talking about with the eligibility period would be Adele’s “Hello,” which came out in October 2015. But a lot of the audience would still like to see her perform that.
There’s a very good chance that they will see that. But they’re not going to see it like they’ve seen it everywhere else. And by the way, she hasn’t done that much television. I mean, she did some appearances, but she didn’t go out on the talk show tour. Even after all this time you haven’t seen Adele everywhere. You’re going to see her blow the roof off the Staples Centre.
The horse race seems clear, but it’s not like you can do an “Adele vs. Beyoncé” commercial…
Well, I could. I don’t know that we’re going to. But listen, that’s a legitimate point of view. They’re two of the biggest stars on the planet, and multi-nominees.
There are people in the industry who complain about the show being all about performance, with fewer and fewer awards given out on-air.
I’ll be honest with you, we’ve heard both. I hear people within the industry who say to me “There need to be more awards on the show,” and then I hear from people that say “That was the greatest concert we’ve seen in years, we need to do more of that.” We have to put 10 pounds of potato salad into a one-pound container. There are almost a hundred categories [to give out] — do the math; there are hundreds of nominees, and somebody’s going to be pissed off. The bottom line in no uncertain terms is that we are tasked with making an event for television. We’re not making a TV show for the industry. We’re making it for the fans, with the legitimacy of the industry backing it up.
Why make a change in host now?
Todd (Smith, aka LL Cool J) had done unbelievably great work for five years being a true emcee, in its purest form. There was nothing ever negative about that conversation. Corden is connected with the music industry in a really big way, and it was just a moment in time to make this change. I hope that there’s other things we can do with Todd, because there’s nobody more dedicated to the success of that show than he has been for the last five years. They’re two different people who are really passionate about the music. And so we’re firing up James Corden and we’re going to see how it goes.
The Grammys have never had an easy time finding a comedian who feels right to host. It feels like maybe the music community isn’t as used to being poked fun at as the Oscars crowd. Even as good a choice as Jon Stewart didn’t click the year he did it. And LL Cool J did not do comedy, period.
No, but remember, we went without a host for a while, and then we brought in Todd and he was really the master of ceremonies. He brought great musical credibility, a certain gravitas, and amazing TV-Q to the party. James brings a whole different set of positives. I don’t know that I’d even call him a comedian. I mean, the guy is a musical actor — he’s won a Tony — so you’ll see him in a really unique and entertaining way throughout the evening. But here’s the difference between our show and (the Oscars). They’re essentially a fashion show that gives out a bunch of trophies. They don’t have any entertainment in their show, so they need a host to do stuff like that. We don’t, because we are performance-driven throughout the night. The beauty of it is, if you have a James Corden, it adds icing on the cake.
Will you bring Corden back to host the Tonys for a second year, too? Can he do double duty?
I think we want to get through the Grammys, and then we’ll figure it out.
How did you feel it went with being live on the west coast for the first time last year? What got everyone over the hurdle of being against it all those years?
It was a great way to expand the audience and bring more people to the party. We’re gonna take another shot at it this year and see how it goes. Back in the early discussion of whether that was a good idea, we believed that after seeing Pink fly around after dropping into the water tank at the front of the house, it would enhance viewership on the west coast, if your east coast friends were tweeting or emailing you about it. We’ve come around to thinking that we’re probably better off live-live everywhere.
There were definitely west coast viewers who were resentful seeing social media from east coast friends who got to see things first.
People are always comparing it to the Oscars, again, which I think is comparing apples to oranges. If you’re on the west coast and find out a particular movie wins movie of the year, there’s no reason for you to tune in anymore. If you hear that Beyoncé just opened the show with Prince, you’re going to want to watch. So the fact that you know who wins album of the year doesn’t mean anything to a viewer. It’s the performance that makes it unique, not the award winning.
How do you feel about having to bring the Grammys into the streaming world?
We have a great interactive department here that works hard at that, and our job is to get the message out and get people to watch on as many platforms as possible and cume it all together — and get more people to watch this year than last year. I don’t care how they watch, as long as we’re getting paid for it.
Is there anyone halfway-young who could warrant an hour in prime time?
I just finished a meeting with Juanes, who I’ve known for going on 20 years, who is one of the biggest global stars out there. As the demos are changing, you’re going to be looking for artists like him that can cross a lot of borders. We’ve used him in other places; he sang “Hotel California” at the Kennedy Center for the Eagles. I don’t know what will happen with it, but he’s one of the most creative guys I’ve ever been around, and I’d love to be in business with him if we come up with the right idea.
You’ve talked about thinking of the annual Victoria’s Secret special in terms of a music show, though that may not be the first thing that comes to everyone’s minds.
It’s become one of the biggest musical platforms in the fourth quarter for a musician. It’s a global hit. In the beginning, we would call in favors for people to perform on that show and perform. We had a relationship with Sting and Marc Anthony and got them to show up. Now, literally the day after the show, we’re getting calls from artists wanting to be booked for the following year. Aside from the obvious fun-to-be-there factor, the show spares no expense in delivering one of the highest quality shows on network television for a music event.
From one end of the scale to the other, you also have the Kennedy Center Honors. We’re used to seeing the president at that every year. With some of the shows that come out of Washington, could things be different now that Trump is president? The arts community is largely at odds with him. Will that affect who shows up?
Well, first and foremost, for that show in particular, the honor is being bestowed by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts. I think you have to wait it out and see how things play out. I think it’s too early to determine what’s going to happen next year.
It seems like there is a possibility for things to get interesting, anyway.
We have to be optimistic.
The Academy of Country Music has a new leader. Does that affect what you do with the ACM Awards in April at all?
We deal with them directly. Pete Fisher, who was general manager at the Grand Ole Opry, is a great guy and a smart, organized leader. With him at the helm we’re hoping to take that brand on television into its next incarnation and continue to grow it.
The ACM ratings were down last year, though that did come the year after a big blowout show in 2015.
If you compare the numbers of the 49th anniversary (in 2014) to the 51st year (in 2016), they’re pretty similar. You can’t compare it to a 50th anniversary show that has that much more marketing attached to it and a bigger story to tell. But I think we’ll do just fine this year in the new venue in Vegas. We’ve already got artists reaching out to us to participate. It’s a different vibe from the other show (the CMAs) in November. When they’re on that show in November, they’re all within five blocks of their record label or their manager’s office. But in Vegas, they’re all far away from all that, and it’s more raucous and people are looser.
You work with some of TV’s top producers on all these shows. Are you intensely hands-on with every one of them?
When you’re doing a live event for television, you have to be buttoned up and on top of it. There’s no post-production. So yeah, we’re critically involved in the creative development of all our shows. Some producers love that, some don’t. We want the individual creative vision of a particular producer, but we do believe we know our audience better than anybody, and we know what’s happening before that show and after that show. We bring that sensibility to that individual producer and collaborate on making the best event for television on that given night. We’re not absentee buyers.