People Magazine Editor Jess Cagle Dishes on the Brand’s First Live Awards Show

The ceremony airs tonight on NBC

People magazine isn't just covering awards season from the sidelines this year. For the first time, the brand is hosting its own live awards ceremony, The People Magazine Awards, which airs tonight at 9 ET on NBC.

Produced by Dick Clark Productions and sponsored by L'Oréal Paris and Kohl's, the People Magazine Awards will honor 2014's biggest stars for everything from TV and film performances to red carpet style and, of course, sexiness. (All the winners were chosen by People and Entertainment Weekly editors.) It also promises plenty of A-list celebs, with big names like Jennifer Aniston, Jon Hamm, Kevin Hart and Jennifer Lopez set to attend.

We spoke to People and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle about pulling off the brand's first-ever awards show.

How did the idea to do a live awards show come about?
It started a few years ago. Dick Clark Productions and People magazine were both big admirers of each other and saw that there might be an opportunity there because People has such a gigantic reach, and it's one of the few media brands that can create a giant cultural moment like Sexiest Man Alive, for example.

There are already so many awards shows on TV. Why add another one to the mix?
There's a reason there are a lot of awards shows and that the audience is interested, advertisers are interested. And they're "appointment television" so people tend to watch them live, which is very appealing for networks. The thing that makes it different from other awards shows is that it's honoring movies and television and music and style and heroes. It is very much the People year-end issue come to life. It's an awards show but also a celebration of the year, and nobody has every done that before. I'm really curious to see how we pull it off [laughs].

You're handing out awards for a really wide range of categories, from best performances to Biggest Phenomenon of 2014. How did you choose those?
First of all, you think of people and entities that you want to honor and what's the best award for them. We didn't want it to be a carbon copy of the Golden Globes or the Oscars or the SAG awards, so there was a lot of discussion around the categories. Early on, we saw that it helped to give awards like Best Performance by an Actor in a Movie or Best Performance in a TV Show, because it's fun to choose those things, but also that's what Hollywood likes. We knew going in that we wanted to give a Hero of the Year award because that really differentiates People, and the Heroes franchise is one of our big things. There's one audience-chosen award for Best Cover.

What was your favorite cover?
My favorites are the covers that just sold best [laughs]. My personal favorite would be the subscriber cover of the 40th anniversary issue. We had Taylor Swift recreate the very first cover of People, which had Mia Farrow on it.

When choosing the winners, were you thinking more along the lines of "Who was the most popular?" Or did you also consider performances that might have been more under-the-radar?
If you're doing a performance-based award, you have to base it on what you really think is the best. When you get into presenters and musical performers, people like that. That's where we focus on big marquee names. But I think the awards have to have credibility. You don't ever want to be in the position of giving lame awards so that next year it doesn't mean anything to the people that are being honored.

Are there plans to make this a yearly event?
I think we would like it to. It depends. The big mission right now for People and Entertainment Weekly, and most brands at Time Inc., is how do these brands live outside of the magazine and the website and the digital products that exist? There are a million ways they can do that—in other digital forms, in video, in television. These brand extensions are incredibly important to us, and if this one's great, we definitely want to move forward with it.

Do you see this becoming a stop on the awards season circuit in the future?
If it goes forward, I think it would be, yeah.