For about the first dozen years of its existence, the Grammy Awards had minimal presence on television. Typically, small-scale awards presentations were filmed, and a show featuring highlight clips was cobbled together and aired weeks or months after the fact.
Then in 1971, producer Pierre Cossette got the idea to put the ceremony on live TV, like the Academy Awards. In the succeeding years, it’s become a staple of the entertainment industry’s awards season, often ranking second among awards shows in ratings only to the Oscar broadcast.
Since the early 1980s, the show has been under the guidance of Ken Ehrlich, who over the years has steadily upped both the number of musical production numbers as well as the only-at-the-Grammys uniqueness of musician collaborations.
Sometimes, Ehrlich has made history, as in 2001, when he paired Detroit rapper Eminem, then under the gun for what many perceived to be misogynistic and homophobic attitudes in his raps, with widely esteemed gay pop star Elton John, a segment that served up a dramatic endorsement of Eminem’s music.
At times, Ehrlich’s pairings have left viewers scratching their heads — think Jay Z and Linkin Park in 2006, or Chinese classical pianist Lang Lang and speed metal group Metallica in 2014 — but Ehrlich’s mission remains the same: to create performances viewers won’t see anywhere else.
Ehrlich’s TV career got off the ground in Chicago in the 1970s with a public television series called “Soundstage,” and since then he has produced numerous other music- and entertainment-centric specials, including the Emmys. Still, the Grammy Awards are far and away Ehrlich’s biggest show year in and year out, for which he wrangles dozens of musicians over the course of a show that generally runs three hours or more.
Ehrlich believes in the power of TV as an agent for social change and has often created special moments in the midst of Grammy shows, as he did in 2014 with the wedding ceremony for about 30 couples including several same-sex partners, and Pharrell Williams’ reworking of his monster hit “Happy” to reflect civil unrest over law enforcement interactions with minority communities in 2015.
"I look at how other shows emulate us," he told The Times in 2015. "I'm still competitive. I think about what the other shows did, or didn't do, think about what we could do better, and it drives me to work harder. It energizes me."