LOS ANGELES - Emmy Awards host Ellen DeGeneres and executive producer Ken Ehrlich might be the perfect team for Sunday's ceremony: They're both Emmy veterans who have paid serious dues.
DeGeneres hosted the post-9/11 awards, which she wrote and rewrote to reflect America's somber mood. Ehrlich produced the 1980 Emmys, when an actors' strike kept away all winners but one (a determined Powers Boothe) and gutted the show of glamour.
Katrina is the challenge for this year's ceremony, which will acknowledge the devastating hurricane while honoring TV's best and trying to keep viewers and the Shrine Auditorium audience entertained.
The leading nominees for the 57th annual prime-time Emmys include two hot series that could help juice the ceremony's sagging ratings: "Desperate Housewives," with three of its stars competing for a best-actress trophy, and "Lost."
"'We need to make people laugh,'" Ehrlich said DeGeneres told him about 10 days after the disaster. "'Without forgetting, we need to make people laugh.'"
He's become increasingly convinced that DeGeneres, who grew up in New Orleans and who has relatives who lost their Gulf Coast homes, is right.
"I think there's an opportunity for this show to definitely be respectful and responsive, but I think there's an opportunity and maybe a responsibility to play some part in healing," Ehrlich said in the week leading up to the show (CBS, 8 p.m. EDT).
The entertainment industry has been prominent in hurricane and flood relief, with actors and musicians taking part in a number of telethons and contributing money as well as onsite help.
There's also been controversy: A live NBC fundraiser included an unscripted speech by rapper Kanye West with a jab at President Bush (edited for the taped West Coast airing). CBS could face a similar situation with the Emmys, also live.
"We don't encourage it and the artists, in fact, have very little time at the podium to begin with for their acceptance speeches," said CBS spokesman Chris Ender. "But we don't edit for commentary, only for matters of indecency."
Presenters will be asked to wear magnolias, the state flower of two Katrina-battered states, Louisiana and Mississippi. There will be a fundraising element: Viewers who want to make donations will be directed to CBS' Web site and to Habitat for Humanity, chosen by the network and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to receive money.
A tribute to three news anchors - retired Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather and the late Peter Jennings - was planned before the hurricane. It's likely to be another means of marking the Southern tragedy and TV's crucial role in such events, Ehrlich said.
"Rather and Brokaw will be here and I'm really looking forward to what they have to say," he said. "I think there will be people who look at that piece with the two of them and the (film) package we're putting together and say, `Gee, television has been there for 40 years and in the last two weeks we've really seen why it's there.'"
In an interview last month, DeGeneres said she was reluctant to return to the job of Emmy host after the draining experience of 2001. Her deft handling of the TV industry's annual exercise in self-congratulation at the onset of terrorism and war was widely acclaimed.
A sweet-talking letter from Ehrlich (the pair first worked together on a VH1 awards show in 1994) and her own reassessment changed her mind.
"I've got a lot to say about television. There's a lot going on in television right now and I feel like a huge part of television," said DeGeneres. She briefly recounted her ups and downs, including the cancelation of her 1990s ABC sitcom and her return with her syndicated talk show.
"Ellen" received five Daytime Emmys in May, including best host for DeGeneres.
"I feel like I'm a family member who was kicked out for a while and couldn't live at home and now I feel welcome again," she said. "I know that I have a lot of people in this business who are supporters and fans and I really admire. ... I want to be part of that night and make the show really entertaining and fun."
Her opening monologue likely will be rewritten to reflect the Katrina crisis, Ehrlich said.
Among the lighter moments planned: a competition a la "American Idol" in which celebrities including William Shatner, Donald Trump and Frederica von Stade perform themes from TV series. Viewers can pick their favorite song by online or text-message voting.
Asked if Shatner and Trump can sing, Ehrlich replied dryly: "We're looking for the Billboard chart positions the week after."
The trophies remain the main event, with awards to be given in 27 categories. Last week, the Emmys recognized technical and other achievements (a taped version of the ceremony airs 7 p.m. EDT Saturday on the E! channel).
Sunday's big race is for best actress in a comedy series, with Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross and Felicity Huffman of "Desperate Housewives" competing with each other and Patricia Heaton (for the last season of "Everybody Loves Raymond") and Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm In The Middle").
The hourlong "Desperate Housewives" is vying for best comedy series honors against the half-hour sitcoms that usually occupy the category. The other nominees: "Arrested Development"; "Everybody Loves Raymond"; "Scrubs" and "Will & Grace."
Contenders for best drama series are "Deadwood"; "Lost"; "Six Feet Under"; "24" and "The West Wing."
The ceremony will be attempting to erase a sour memory from last year, when it ended up the second lowest-rated ever and drew fewer than 14 million viewers.
This time, popular contenders like "Desperate Housewives" have stirred Emmy excitement and, the industry hopes, will draw more viewers.
"It's a horse race you want to watch" because you know the horses, said Spike Jones Jr., one of the producers of the creative arts Emmys.