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Grammy Producer Ken Ehrlich Reflects on Working With Outgoing Recording Academy Chief Neil Portnow

Jack Sussman, Ken Ehrlich, Neil Portnow
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for NARAS

CBS Entertainment's Executive Vice President of Specials, Music and Live Events Jack Sussman, Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich and The Recording Academy and MusiCares President/CEO Neil Portnow attend the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018, in New York City.

"It's too bad that this is how it's going to end."

Producer Ken Ehrlich, who has helmed the Grammy Awards telecast since 1980 and the last 16 with Recording Academy chairman/president Neil Portnow, expressed disappointment to Billboard on Thursday (May 31) following news Portnow had tendered his resignation.

“It’s unfortunate because this partnership between the Academy, CBS and me has been overwhelmingly positive. I don’t think I’ve ever had as collaborative a relationship as I’ve had between [CBS Entertainment executive vice president of specials, music and live events] Jack Sussman, Neil and myself,” he said. “It’s too bad that this is how it’s going to end.”

Portnow, who had hoped to extend his contract past its July 2019 expiration will now step down next summer and the 2019 Grammy Awards will be the last he and Ehrlich will work on together.

Under Portnow, the Recording Academy inked a 10-year, several hundred million dollar broadcast deal with CBS to keep the Grammys on the network through 2026. He also expanded the Grammys’ television footprint with Grammy salutes to the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, and, earlier this year, Elton John

However, this year’s ratings tumbled for the show, dropping 24 percent, according to Nielsen Media, averaging 19.8 million overall viewers and drawing a 5.9 rating among adults 18-49, a new low. The Grammys also came under fire for the lack of female winners on the show, with only one woman accepting a trophy during the 3.5 hour televised broadcast. Despite the fact that the number of female and male performers on the show broke down almost evenly, the lack of female winners on stage and Portnow’s later suggestion that females might need to “step up,” tainted the show. 

“It’s not fair to paint the Grammys with an anti-female balance,” Ehrlich said, “but it might be fair to say the Grammys have been reflective, but not reflective enough, of popular taste.”

Ehrlich spoke with Portnow Thursday morning after he learned the news. “He was sanguine,” Ehrlich said. “He was sad, but he was pragmatic and sincerely said his concern is for the future of the Academy and the legacy he’s created.” 

On that account, the ledger tips in favor of Portnow, who took over the Recording Academy after another tumultuous time following the departure of former head Michael Greene.

“I don’t think there’s any question that Neil led the Academy out of [that turmoil] to a stable, growing, more credible [organization] and strengthened what the Grammys stand for,” Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich’s contract to produce the Grammys is up in 2020. As far as his future, he said, “I think I will continue to do the show for the next two years and then we’ll see what happens.”