Showrunner Ben Winston chats about “that Beyoncé moment,” BTS’s performance, the importance of not censoring artists like Cardi B and Lil Baby, and why TV ratings don’t accurately reflect the awards ceremony’s success
Ben Winston can finally sleep again. Sort of. After producing the Grammys for the first time last Sunday, he crawled into bed around 4 a.m., only to be jumped on by his young daughter, Ruby, two hours later; he also went right back to work in the morning, taping three episodes of The Late Late Show With James Corden in the week since Music’s Biggest Night.
Speaking to Rolling Stone on Zoom, Winston is still tired, but relieved — his inbox has been flooded with praise for the telecast, which skewed noticeably younger in performers than usual and truly reflected the year in music. “The biggest compliment I got after it was people saying, ‘This year, I watched it from start to finish,'” he says. The Recording Academy also tested all crew and staff members for Covid-19 multiple times over a three-week period, giving out 6,500 Covid-19 tests, and only three came back positive — a second major success. (Those three promptly quarantined.)
Even Winston’s predecessor, Ken Ehrlich, who oversaw the show for 40 years, proverbially patted him on the back. “He wrote me a really gorgeous email actually,” Winston says. “I sent him a basket of goodies on Sunday morning that arrived at his house. I said, ‘I don’t know if you’ll like the show that I’ve made this year or not, but I definitely want you to like the snacks that you can eat during it.’ I sent him a box of British cakes and chocolates. That night, he sent me an email full of love and praise. He’s been very supportive and very kind to me all the way through.”
Winston debriefed with Rolling Stone on his biggest triumphs and frustrations with the show — and the undecided nature of the 2022 Grammys.
So, how’d it go?
Good! It’s a beast of a show, that one. When you start, it’s almost like you step off the edge of a cliff and you just know that you’re falling for three and a half hours, and you just got to keep trying to flap your wings as quick as you can to make sure that you don’t fall.
We did a lot of work in the prep — whether it be the staging, the run of show, the venue pieces, the outdoor tent, the Gibson Hazard packages. [Hazard was the director behind the Record of the Year backstory videos.] But, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Once you go live at five o’clock, it’s like, “Let’s just hope everything goes OK.”
I’m so proud that we managed to pull off a really ambitious concept. We didn’t try to do anything easy. We went for it. And I guess that was partly because it was my first year. But it was also such a crazy year, and tonally, we needed to get that right. I think we did. Trevor [Noah] said it really well at the beginning: It was about never forgetting what happened in 2020, but being full of joy, togetherness, and hope for what 2021 can be. It’s a tricky tone to get right in a year like this, because people don’t necessarily want to see really famous people getting gold statues from really famous people.
Were there any parts of the show you were nervous about pulling off?
One hundred percent. It was act one, when Trevor walks from the outdoor area, goes indoors, and Billie Eilish is watching Harry [Styles], then Harry’s watching Haim, and the Black Pumas are watching … that whole thing.
Once we got that on its feet and we were able to take those shots of Harry singing along to Billie Eilish or Haim, that’s when it was proof of concept. That’s when I was like, “OK, this is great. This is what I wanted.” What I didn’t want was everyone in their own area making their own music video. I wanted it to be a community thing. [Artists] always say they’re going to, but when Harry actually stayed around to watch the other three, Billie stayed, Haim stayed, everybody stayed. Throughout the whole show, there wasn’t one of them who was like, “Oh no, I’m not staying to watch this.”
They said, “I haven’t seen live music in a year. Are you kidding me? I’m delighted to be here.” As soon as that started happening, I realized it was going to be great. It was artists watching other artists. I was like, “OK, we might just get away with this. This might work.”
Also, in that room, the stages were only about nine inches tall. We did that so it wasn’t about sitting on a stage with a nonexistent audience. It was about everyone being together and the camera being the same height as the performer. When the lens comes in for that first shot of Harry and he starts singing after that intro from Trevor, he’s looking straight down the lens — and we’re not miles away on a pedestal at the back of the room, because you have to be high. It was just a guy standing, same height as me, and he’s right there.
Can you tells us which performances were live and which were recorded?
I’m not saying anything. I’m going to die with it.
Some of it couldn’t be live simply for the safety of the crew. The changeovers for some of those sets were going to take so long. For example, every time an award was given out, those nominees walked out of the tent and every tablecloth, every glass, and every flower was changed in between every single award. We had a clock on it for a seven-minute changeover. Then the new nominees took their seats. They wouldn’t have even touched the same linen.
So, not only were we creating a run of show that would be entertaining and take you on a musical journey, we were also creating a running order that gave us time to change things around if needed. And I really enjoyed the math puzzle that has us go, “Oh, actually, we can put that award next to that award, because four of the nominees are the same nominees, so we only need to change this many tablecloths. We can do that!”
I don’t think people at home think about those elements, and they shouldn’t think about them, because that’s the enjoyment of watching TV. But little elements like that had knock-on effects to what was live and what wasn’t.
The fact that people don’t know means we got it right. I did that on purpose, because I wanted it to feel like it was a moment in time. Even when you’re playing a tape, the ins and outs of it all — the maneuvering, the undertaking that goes on when the camera light goes off, the organization of it — it’s absolutely bonkers.
“A beautiful thing that a lot of people haven’t noticed is that [BTS] changed the flowers to Korean roses as a little nod to where they were. Their performance was amazing. It wasn’t cut up. It wasn’t a music video. It was a live performance.”
BTS clearly performed in Korea. Were there plans to have them in L.A.?
The aim was to have all of the artists in L.A. on our stages. As the date got nearer, we realized certain artists wouldn’t be able to come. It mainly had to do with health and safety, and immigration issues. And I’m not speaking specifically about BTS, because there were two others with immigration issues.
A few months before, we booked BTS on the Late Late Show. They didn’t tell us anything about that performance. They were just submitting a video, because it was during the lockdown time when we weren’t having artists live in the studio — and we don’t really get involved in the artists’ performing unless we’re filming it.
They sent this video, and I’ll never forget opening it. They had re-created and built the entire Late Late Show set — where James sits, where the guests sit, and the performance area. It was a huge undertaking, and everything was so precise: They got the signage right, they got the mug right, they got the on-air sign right. They’d really studied it. So, when I was talking to BTS’ management, I said, “Look, you did that amazing thing for the Late Late Show. Because you can’t be here, do you think you could do that?”
It was only with about three weeks to go, maybe less. And they were like, “Yes! We can do it.” A beautiful thing that a lot of people haven’t noticed is that they changed the flowers to Korean roses as a little nod to where they were. Their performance was amazing. It wasn’t cut up. It wasn’t a music video. It was a live performance. It was a live vocal. It was absolutely brilliant and worth breaking my “you have to be in L.A.” rule for that.
You’ve said you don’t know who’s going to win the awards in advance. When did you realize Beyoncé was going to break the record for most wins by an artist? How did that become a moment on the show?
That was a beautiful moment. I thought she might do it. I did make a last-minute change in case she won. I moved R&B Performance after Rap Song in case she won Rap Song, so then, if she was to break the record, she would break it on her own.
Did she have any idea?
No. No one ever has any idea. There’s one person at the Academy who knows and someone from Deloitte, and that’s it. It’s not like making other shows that I’ve worked on in the past, where you know three weeks before. If I’m being honest, that’s also the other thing you get nervous about. I can’t control who gets those awards. I don’t even get a vote.
The Beyoncé thing was one of those moments where it felt like all of the worlds collided, and I was just so happy seeing it happen on screen. When Trevor came in and announced it, I found the reaction on her face to be incredibly moving. She was genuinely so surprised. She was standing there supporting Megan [Thee Stallion], and I was in Trevor’s ear. I was going, “Trevor, get in there! She’s tied the record!”
He sort of darted in while dealing with me shouting down his ear, giving him information. I’m like, “27! Say it’s 27!” You can see he adds that in just afterwards, because I was like, “Give the number!”
I would say that was the most excitable I got during the night. That was unrehearsed. You could tell by the way they didn’t know when to go down the stairs.
Are you happy with the viewership numbers?
I genuinely don’t know those numbers. I purposely haven’t looked at them. It’s not that I don’t read my own reviews: I read every review, I can promise you. But I haven’t looked at the numbers, because it’s the thing I can’t control.
What I do want to say is that television has fundamentally changed over the past few years. Everybody who’s writing about the ratings being down knows full well that it has changed substantially. Therefore, I find it a little bit cheeky when they’re like, “It’s 40 percent down! It’s 50 percent down!” Whatever. They know that people aren’t watching TV in the same way that they used to watch TV.
The next morning, I went to my Late Late Show production meeting and everybody was talking to me about it — and none of them had actually watched it on CBS linearly. They just hadn’t. My children aren’t growing up saying, “Daddy, what time is Peppa Pig on? I really want to watch it.” They’re going, “I really want to watch Peppa Pig and I’d like to watch it now.” Last year, I directed When Corden Met McCartney, and the night it went out, 900,000 people watched it — but 160 million people have watched it since.
The viewing habits of our nation are changing. And the pandemic has accentuated it. Something I believe would’ve happened over 10 years happened in 12 months. You can see that with everything from the Super Bowl to the Golden Globes being down, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t watching the content. I saw a stat that 12.5 million people watched the premiere ceremony on Grammy.com. That’s remarkable because it’s more people than [critics] are saying watched the actual show. It’s impossible. It’s just not the case.
[We had] every trend in Top 20 on Twitter that night, and millions have watched on YouTube since. Also, look at the iTunes charts the next day. Every single entry in the Top 10 was a performance that had been on the show. That shows me people were engaged, they were watching, they were buying music from the show, they were talking about the show. How many people watched it live on CBS? I couldn’t tell you.
And if that’s the only way we’re managing the success of television, then we’re getting it wrong.
What was the reception like from the Academy and CBS?
CBS and the Academy have both been incredible. I think CBS was over the moon with the show and the way that we tried to change it slightly to make it feel more current and modern and speak to a younger audience.
That’s another thing about ratings: The problem with network television is that it skews old. The average age is 55. [Critics] can’t want us to skew young, which we did, and then criticize it, saying the 55-year-olds aren’t watching!
People keep asking what I’m going to do next year. I don’t know. I don’t even have a contract for next year. Who knows if I’ll do it next year? They might not want me. I got a one-year deal.
Don’t you want to do it again without Covid restrictions?
Sure. Listen, it’s an amazing show. You can call up Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, and Bruno Mars, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, we’ll do it.” That’s the Grammys. That’s not because of me, the producer.
I remember calling Cardi B’s team about “WAP” when that song dropped in the summer. I called Julie Greenwald at Atlantic and was like, “I love it. It would be so much fun to do that on the Grammys.”
You had no FCC concerns?
Of course there are FCC concerns, but it’s not my job to worry about that. There are people from Standards and Practices there to check that and make sure they were happy. But I don’t think it’s our jobs as producers to censor artists.
You have to be sensitive when you’re working with people who want to say something. I’m thinking about Lil Baby as well. That performance was something we worked really hard at, to make sure it was as powerful as it could be. I think that song speaks to a generation. Originally, it was going to be in the room. It was very screen-based, very LED-based, using images of that time. But in my heart, I was like, “This is such a massive song and it’s such an important song.” With everything [else] I wanted for this show, I wanted it intimate: The only performance that was going to be worse off because of my creative [direction] was that song. We got on a Zoom call, and I went, “Guys, why don’t we just do this outside next to the tent?” That way, we could have the amount of people he wanted too.
What people also didn’t realize was that we were only ever allowed eight people on stage at any one time. So, with Dua’s dancers, they would come off, and a new batch would go on. With all those elements — bands, DaBaby’s choir — they were all spread apart for Covid safety.
By moving Lil Baby’s performance outdoors, we could have the amount of supporting artists he wanted. We could have Killer Mike and Tamika Mallory, we could have the fast-food joint on fire, we could do so much more with it. Fatima Robinson produced the hell out of that.
You covered a lot of ground on Sunday.
What I loved about it was we had crazy, mad moments like Cardi doing “WAP,” but at the same time, we had poignant, powerful moments like Mickey Guyton singing “Black Like Me.” I think we got the balance right.
With the Grammys, the biggest negative is how long it is, but I get why it needs to be that long. So, every 45 minutes to an hour, something had to change. I wanted to bring in a new element so you never felt like you were getting bored.
With act one, there was the Jools Holland element. With act two, we brought in those Gibson Hazard videos and we started telling stories. For act three, we brought in the independent venues. Then, we focused on women in country music, which was important: The country nominations have always been male-dominated. Purposefully, we didn’t have Trevor introduce those women. I wanted Mickey to introduce Miranda and Miranda to introduce Maren, because I wanted it to be their moment.
Then there was the In Memoriam, which was like 15 minutes long and probably broke the record for any In Memoriam. Then there was Beyoncé’s fabulous moment. Then Lil Baby went outdoors, just when you were probably tired of being indoors. Then you end the night with some really cool awards. We thought: What’s something new that we can bring to the show so it doesn’t feel like a slog of an evening that goes performance, performance, performance? I think, without necessarily realizing why, people liked it because of that.
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