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Media Meltdowns

ESPN Busted In Dumb Scheme To Score Bogus Emmys For On-Air Stars

A photo of Liz Patrick with her Emmy Award, and with Lee Corso's face clumsily pasted on top of hers.
JC Olivera/Variety via Getty Images (Lee Corso's head: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Is it still stolen valor to claim an honor nobody gives a rip about? In any case, ESPN got caught inventing fake employees to fish for extra Emmy awards. And winning them.

The media story of the day, courtesy of Katie Strang at The Athletic, goes over a scheme used by the network for more than a decade to pad its stars' mantelpieces with statuettes. As outlined in the fab piece, ESPN bosses wanted hardware for the on-air folks, particularly those on its hugely successful College GameDay programming. But until last year, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS), the sanctioning body that bestows around 400 of the $400 baubles on media folks each year, held that only staffers on the other side of the camera were eligible for consideration in the outstanding show category, which is awarded collectively to the staff of the winning show, all of whom receive engraved statuettes. This was to prevent on-air talent, who could be nominated for individual awards, from winning twice for the same work.

But somebody at the network evidently decided they needed to get around the star-stifling rules. And at some point before 2010 and maybe as far back as 1997, ESPN began putting the names of fictitious workers in the lists it sent to NATAS of personnel included in its outstanding show nominations, and let the show’s huge renown—and, apparently, nobody's curiosity about any of those behind-the-scenes workers—carry the day. To make sure insiders still knew whose statue was whose (and possibly to make re-engraving the statuettes easier), the fake names mirrored those of the show’s real luminaries. Strang’s story included a wondrous graphic showing some of these: “Shelley Saunders” for Shelley Smith, "Lee Clark" for Lee Corso, “Chris Fulton” for Chris Fowler, “Tim Richard” for Tom Rinaldi, and “Dirk Howard” for “Desmond Howard. (“Dirk”? Seems somebody had Boogie Nights on the brain.)

Some might pooh-pooh this pseudo pseudonym plan as too simplistic even for a George Santos scam. Counterpoint: Santos got elected! And ESPN's gambit worked! The report says ESPN won “more than 30” Emmys for non-existent staffers since 2010, which were then re-engraved and presented to on-air talent, who reportedly believed they'd won them legitimately. Because nobody pays attention to the Emmys—not even those who might be glad to receive one.

Strang’s story doesn’t say exactly how the scheme originated or was exposed, but given all the layoffs at ESPN in recent years, there was probably a line of ex-staffers willing to drop a dime on the network. 

The piece does report that in 2022, NATAS asked ESPN “to verify certain names” in its nominees list. Smith told The Athletic she was ordered last March to return two College GameDay Emmys that she’d been given “more than a decade ago.” Strang learned that two ESPN officials—Craig Lazarus, vice president and executive producer of original content and features, and Lee Fitting, senior vice president of production—have been banned by NATAS “from future participation in the Emmys.” 

After learning The Athletic was going to report on the Emmy shenanigans, the network issued a statement semi-apologizing for its prize-pig behavior: “This was a misguided attempt to recognize on-air individuals who were important members of our production team. Once current leadership was made aware, we apologized to NATAS for violating guidelines and worked closely with them to completely overhaul our submission process to safeguard against anything like this happening again.”

All in all, great story. Katie Strang should win an award for it. Hell, give one to Kathy Strong, too.

Disclosure: The writer belittling Emmys in this piece has never won an Emmy.

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