Guest Commentary: Emmy nomination process needs fixing

Jun 10, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Hey, who stopped the revolution halfway through?
In the battle for a better Emmy Award, the good guys were winning!
Just two years ago, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences introduced the most radical-and risky-overhaul of Emmy voting in 35 years: at-home videotape viewing. It dared to mess with the most accurate and fair system ever devised to pick the best work in Hollywood. Judging panels were created in 1965 by ATAS President Rod Serling, who decreed: From now on, members MUST see video samples of everything nominated or else-too bad-they can’t vote.
The procedure revolutionized show-biz awards, giving underdogs a fair chance they didn’t have at the Oscars, Grammys and Tonys. Some pedigree TV puppies, struggling in the ratings, were even spared from being put to sleep by network execs when those shows won big on Emmy night-including “Mission: Impossible,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Cheers.”
As heroic as Serling’s revolutionary voting system was, fewer than 15 percent of ATAS members bothered to give up weekend tennis matches to do their industry duty. Desperate to increase participation, ATAS tried at-home viewing in 2000 while Emmy watchers held their breath. Could that notoriously shady Hollywood crowd be trusted to watch the tapes? What if only Nielsen faves prevailed? Even though the new voting was billed as a “test,” it was so popular with lazy Academy members-tripling the number of them participating-that it was clear that there was no going back to the panels.
The ghost of “Twilight Zone’s” creator loomed large and ominous on Emmy night. But there turned out to be a happy Hollywood ending when so many underdogs, like “Malcolm in the Middle,” came out on top.
Now the question begs: Why did ATAS stop there? Why didn’t it apply the most successful aspect of new voting-broader participation-to finish Serling’s revolution? Given the paltry turnout at the old panels, Serling could never muster the forces he needed to fix the nomination process, which still employed a popular ballot, leaving TV’s golden girl with an oddly schizophrenic procedure that baffles Emmy watchers. Why does ATAS believe it’s important for voters to view tapes to pick winners, but not nominees, too?
“The academy desperately needs to correct the nomination process, or it’s never going to be taken seriously,” says USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco. “You can virtually count out anything on The WB and UPN getting a chance while categories are being filled by shows like “ER,” which have not been at the top of their game for five or six years. It’s a voting system teetering on disaster.”
To address that indictment, ATAS could ask members to judge potential nominees throughout the year. Each member could weigh, say, a dozen or so tapes per month, scoring them 1 to 10. The five contenders with the highest scores would be declared the nominees.
Serling’s revolution must be finished. Few underdogs like “Cheers” or “Hill Street Blues” get nominated. Just think of the thousands of potential TV classics, long dead now, that never had a fighting chance.
Tom O’Neil is the author of “The Emmys” (Perigee Books) and host of the award-predictions Web site GoldDerby.com.