How the AMAs Shut Down Chris Brown

Chris Brown
A planned Chris Brown performance at the AMAs was abruptly blocked by Disney/ABC. Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Matthew Belloni
November 20, 2022

How hard is it to manage televised live events these days? Nothing on stage at the American Music Awards tonight will compare to the behind-the-scenes drama all week over a planned Chris Brown performance that was abruptly blocked by Disney/ABC. Here’s what happened, according to multiple sources on all sides of the standoff:

Jesse Collins and Stephen Hill, who are executive producing the ABC show for Dick Clark Productions, were working with Brown and his team on a medley of Michael Jackson hits with Ciara and others in tribute to the 40th anniversary of Thriller. Brown is nominated for an AMA and has appeared at several awards shows since pleading guilty to physically assaulting then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, among other legal skirmishes. But this would have been the first time in the #MeToo era, since the BET Awards in 2017, that a televised show had invited him to perform. And Brown complained in August that he’s basically been shadow-banned for his past behavior.

Collins and especially Hill, a former programming chief at BET who has a good relationship with Brown, felt strongly about giving Brown an opportunity to return to TV. But the prospect of a convicted domestic abuser feting an alleged child molester on a Disney network (yes, “Beat It” was in the planned medley) never made it to the ABC higher-ups until, weirdly, I called and asked about the plans last weekend. ABC Entertainment president Craig Erwich was then alerted, and Rob Mills, the network’s head of alternative and specials, went back to the producers to nix the plan.

Collins and Hill were furious, and in a call with Mills, they walked through the likely blowback of shutting down an opinionated performer with such a big fan following. Erwich, Mills, the Disney/ABC PR team, and Felicia Joseph, head of ABC talent, then debated the issue (Disney TV chief Dana Walden was even briefed). The upshot: Disney wasn’t opposed to Brown performing, it was just the pairing of this artist with this material that would be potentially radioactive and thus a nonstarter.

How can we do this in a way that is more thoughtful? Disney asked the producers, suggesting they come back with new options. But Brown, who had already rehearsed the Jackson medley, wasn’t interested in that—something the producers figured would be the case. So Brown bailed and posted some rehearsal footage on Instagram with the comment, “WOULDVE been the ama performance but they cancelled me for reasons unknown.”

At ABC and D.C.P., the reasons were definitely known, but the producers likely would have figured out a non-Jackson workaround if Brown was game. (Ciara, for instance, is now presenting on the show.) D.C.P. president Adam Stotsky apologized to the Disney folks for any miscommunications, and the show goes on tonight, without Brown. “Live shows change all the time, it’s the nature of this business,” a D.C.P. rep tells me in a statement. “Unfortunately, this element of the AMAs didn’t come together as we couldn’t align on the performance, to no fault of Chris Brown.” ABC declined to comment.