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One complicated, onerous proposal to fix the Emmy Awards

Orange Is The New Black

The National Academy Of Television Arts And Sciences recently ruled on petitions submitted by the producers of Glee, Shameless, Jane The Virgin, and Orange Is The New Black to allow those shows to vie for the Emmy Awards’ comedy categories. Of the four, only Orange was denied eligibility, forcing the Netflix series to compete in the far more crowded drama field. Netflix’s chief of content Ted Sarandos said the streaming service was “disappointed” with the decision, but is confident Orange is competitive in either category.

The ruling came as a result of recent changes to the Emmy eligibility rules enacted after the staid 66th Annual Primetime Emmys were met with a chorus of boos, yawns, and self-satisfied giggles. In the most controversial rule change, NATAS declared hour-long shows ineligible for comedy categories, excluding shows like the four whose producers requested exceptions. For Orange to be singled out as the drama among the bunch is confusing and arbitrary, especially for anyone who has seen all four shows. It’s a baffling decision that neutralizes NATAS’ nascent goodwill. Just when it looked like the Emmy voters were taking a thoughtful approach to addressing the flaws in their system, they betrayed the degree to which they’re flying blind.


At least the rule changes show NATAS is paying attention to the raft of criticism it’s gotten over an awards process that fixates on specific networks, shows, and performers, and nominates them year after year. Modern Family’s five-year vise grip on the Outstanding Comedy Series category has become the sharpest sticking point, as it seems as if the Emmy voters are willfully oblivious to the paradigm shift taking place in television comedy. ABC’s comedy flagpole was frequently mentioned in the spate of critical essays that followed last year’s Emmys, most of which shared one simple thing in common: They mentioned “one simple thing” NATAS could do to fix the Emmys. If only it were that simple. The essential flaw with the Emmy categories is that they hew too closely to the Academy Awards despite the qualities that make television a different medium than film. It isn’t the sort of thing that can be fixed with the single flick of a pre-existing switch.

Here’s something different: a really complicated, onerous proposal for fixing the Emmy Awards. It doesn’t make for a sexy headline, but it goes towards addressing the essential flaws that make the Emmys less relevant with each passing year.

NATAS should make all category determinations for dramedy series

According to Variety, the four shows petitioning for eligibility in the comedy categories were required to submit their entire seasons, which were evaluated by a nine-member panel that made determinations based on an impression of the show’s overall tone. A two-thirds vote was required to grant a petition. Perhaps the reason the denial of Orange’s petition seems completely random is because it was. If NATAS enacted the episode-length rule for comedies, then issued waivers to every show that applied for one, it would render the rule toothless. There’s no evidence to suggest the panel was looking to make an example and chose Orange arbitrarily, but the optics of saying yes to all four shows clearly wouldn’t work in the TV Academy’s favor.


By dropping the hammer on Orange, the TV Academy gets to look like it’s cracking down on the gamesmanship television producers employ to maximize their Emmy chances. But this does nothing to address the many tonally promiscuous half-hour shows that remain eligible for the comedy categories, which most impacts the comedy performance races. Showtime has cleaned up with its dry, dour half-hour comedies including Nurse Jackie’s Edie Falco and United States Of Tara’s Toni Collette winning Outstanding Comedy Actress Emmys for non-traditional comedy roles. If Girls, Togetherness, and Looking remain eligible for comedy categories, the problem hasn’t been addressed.

The solution is to take the category decision out of the hands of networks and producers. NATAS should create an internal dramedy classification to be used solely to later assign shows to comedy or drama categories. The TV Academy wouldn’t create a separate dramedy category, but its panel would designate scripted series that qualify as dramedies regardless of length, then watch all episodes of those shows each year in order to determine which category each show should compete in. It’s a process in which half-hour shows would still have a greater likelihood of being declared comedies, but one that doesn’t unfairly single out longer shows or give dramedies an unfair advantage by allowing them to flit between categories. It would address how such shows evolve; Girls looked much more like a comedy in its first season than it did in its second. More importantly, it would eliminate the shifty strategies that call the whole process into question. If networks and producers are willing to compete in either category, they should put the decision in the Academy’s hands rather than gaming the system by entering in the field with the least competition.


Expand acting categories and allow performers to enter either race

The TV Academy binds performers to the Outstanding Actor and Actress races in either the drama or comedy categories based on how the series is classified, and that makes little sense for shows that split the tonal difference. Take Shameless, for example, which made hard-fought Emmy headway last year after submitting to comedy categories for the first time after years of being passed over for dramatic consideration. The move landed the show its first major category nomination for William H. Macy, who was in the running for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy. The strategy was a win for Macy, whose performance in Shameless is as purely comedic as anything the show has to offer. But it puts nearly every other performer on the show at a disadvantage. Emmy Rossum is equally deserving of consideration for her Shameless performance, but her character almost never gets comedic material to play and will never win a nomination for submitting in comedy categories.


Macy, the show’s comic relief, should be able to submit himself for comedy races and Rossum should be eligible to submit for drama races irrespective of what series category Shameless winds up in. Freeing performers to go either direction, based on the natures of their characters, gives them a better chance of winding up in categories that favor them while taking away some of the incentive for networks and producers to enter mostly dramatic series into comedy races. It also couldn’t hurt to increase the number of nominees in the acting categories to allow as many as 10, which wouldn’t make the process that much more arduous given that performers only submit a single episode for consideration.

Create an Outstanding Guest Ensemble category

One recent rule change the TV Academy made was to the Guest Actor and Guest Actress categories, which have been infiltrated over the years by performers who appear on their respective shows often enough to be considered cast regulars. Under the new rule, performers will be ineligible for the Guest categories if they have appeared in more than six episodes of the current season. With that rule in place, neither of last year’s dramatic Guest winners—Scandal’s Joe Morton and Orange’s Uzo Aduba—would be eligible.


The larger issue with the Guest categories is that many contemporary television shows feature sprawling ensembles full of minor characters who may only appear a few times per season. The actors in those roles have no chances at Emmy consideration for their performances because the Guest categories are skewed in two ways: There’s a bias toward more prominent characters, as was the case with Morton and Aduba’s wins, or there’s a bias toward name recognition, giving more well-known actors an advantage over lesser-known actors who make limited appearances.

NATAS should split the difference by further tightening the Guest performance categories—no more than four episodes—and creating an additional award for ensembles similar to the one the Screen Actors Guild hands out at its annual award ceremony, but excluding cast regulars. Dylan Baker and Michael J. Fox should not be given so many opportunities to compete for their performances in The Good Wife while Mike Colter, Sarah Steele, and Jess Weixler have essentially no path to Emmy consideration. An Outstanding Guest Ensemble category would fix this.


Split the series categories into age-based tiers

Another NATAS rule change increased the number of eligible slots for the Outstanding Drama and Outstanding Comedy categories from six to seven, allowing one more series nominee to slide into each race. It’s a move reminiscent of the change made by the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, which in 2009 increased the number of nominees in its Best Picture Academy Award from five to 10, then later said there would be between five and 10 nominees depending on the year’s crop of films. That system works just fine for movies, but for television shows, it isn’t just a matter of increasing the number of nominees, thereby making the culling process slightly less difficult each year.


No recent Emmy Awards illustrates the problem better than the 2007 ceremony, in which the Outstanding Drama Series category was occupied by The Sopranos, Grey’s Anatomy, Boston Legal, Heroes, and House. The Sopranos won for its final season, but there’s no logical explanation for why The Sopranos sixth season and Heroes first season should have competed against each other. Heroes received nominations that year for Drama Series, Directing, and Supporting Actor, but didn’t land a Writing nomination, suggesting the show’s series nomination stemmed from the TV Academy’s occasional desire to grant a nomination to the hottest new show of the season in order to look like it’s got its finger on the pulse of the medium. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it results in direct competition between shows that are operating on completely different levels.

The key issue with the Emmy series categories is that they pit new shows against old ones. Long-running television shows go through life cycles, usually with some level of decline in later seasons. The Emmys aren’t attuned to these dynamics of the medium. Some new shows barrel out of the gate in their first seasons, creating a halo effect that secures subsequent nominations for inferior seasons. (See: Homeland and Damages, both of which secured nominations for their wobbly sophomore years.) Many shows, especially comedies, take time to find their sea legs. (See: Parks And Recreation, which didn’t truly hit full speed until its third season.) Add in the fact that Emmy voters are also a nostalgic bunch with a soft spot for shows at the end of their runs, and it’s no wonder the series categories are a mixed bag that leave out plenty of worthy programming.


The solution is for the Emmys to stop trying to resemble the Academy Awards and implement series categories based on the ages of shows, which is a better reflection of how television shows work. There should be a New Series category for shows in their first years, with something like five to eight nominees, and both dramas and comedies eligible for consideration. New Series would allow Emmy voters to recognize the breakout hit of the season (Empire, for example) as well as excellent but lesser watched freshman shows. It would also help to eliminate the bias against shows that only run for one season before they’re canceled. One advantage the Academy Awards have over the Emmys is an openness to quality work whether or not it was commercially successful. While there have been nominations given to shows canceled after they’ve completed a couple of seasons, there’s essentially no path to an Emmy for a fantastic show canceled after its first year.

For both dramas and comedies, there should be an Established Series category for shows in their second, third, or fourth seasons, and a Veteran Series category for shows with five seasons or more. Established Series and Veteran Series categories would help correct the Emmy voters’ tendency to award the same shows year after year by forcing voters to measure shows against peers at similar stages of their life cycles. The TV Academy would be forced to evaluate shows anew as they age, eliminating the awareness donut hole created when a show doesn’t instantly solidify or takes a moment to make a dent in the consciousness. The temptation to nominate a monster like Empire is understandable, but it’s painful when a slot goes to a show without a proven track record while shows that demonstrate excellence year after year go unrecognized for failing to make an immediate impression. As it stands now, there’s basically no chance for a show like The Americans to win serious consideration, no matter how good it gets, because it didn’t land in any major categories in its first two years. There has to be an Emmy framework that allows voters to honor television shows as they evolve over the years rather than focusing on first-year hits and going back to them reflexively or awarding outgoing shows to honor their legacies.


If the plan seems too radical, consider there’s a reason the Emmys already have a separate race for miniseries, a category rechristened as Outstanding Limited Series to account for the uptick in anthology series. The category became a lightning rod in recent years with anthology series like American Horror Story mopping up in the mini-series category, while True Detective made a play for Outstanding Drama Series. The TV Academy already understands that shows conceived and planned as finite stories have to be evaluated differently than shows that are open-ended, yet it has no compunction about pitting a six-year old show completing its victory lap against a promising upstart that could tank in its later years. There’s no sense in that.

Expanding the Emmys in this way would widen the playing field, but not excessively so. Were the plan implemented, it would make sense to shrink the number of nominees in each series category, perhaps to four nominees. That would take the number of total series nominees from 14 shows to at most 24, which is still highly competitive considering how much amazing television is being produced. Having all those extra categories would expand the Emmy ceremony, which is already as bloated as any primetime kudocast, but Established Series categories could be awarded at the Creative Arts ceremony. Let’s face it: Much like the voters, the general public doesn’t care much about middle-age television shows. Put the New Series and Veteran Series categories into the telecast and find other places to trim the fat. The Actor and Actress categories wouldn’t expand according to these tiers, as great performances can come at any point in a show’s life cycle.


It’s a complicated proposal. Implementing it would be a pain in the ass. But in order to reclaim its authority, the TV Academy has to go beyond tinkering with the status quo and make a dramatic, sweeping change to its rules if its ever going to catch up with the broader television conversation.

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