Dissecting the Emmys Process

Aug 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

Each year, when the Emmy nominations are announced, it’s a sure bet they will be criticized for their omissions and inclusions or just on general principle. However one handicaps the choices or tabulates the possibilities, the nomination procedure is not a science-though the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences seems perpetually to be experimenting to arrive at a foolproof formula.

This year’s nominees, while similar in many ways to those of last year and the year before, diverged enough into new areas to make the entire group difficult to characterize. “I don’t think there was a trend this year,” said Tom O’Neil, author of “The Emmys: The Ultimate, Unofficial Guide to the Battle of TV’s Best Shows and Greatest Stars” and host of the Web site Goldderby.com, which focuses on entertainment awards.

Mr. O’Neil pointed to the two most prominent newcomers among the nominees-“Joan of Arcadia” for best dramatic series, and best comedy nominee “Arrested Development”-as evidence of open-mindedness among Emmy voters. “`Arrested Development’ is an anti-establishment farce,” he said. “`Joan of Arcadia’ is conservative, with Christian values. Take these together and ask yourself, `Is this how the geezer Emmy voters think?’ There is no way to explain these choices in a way that explains the Emmys, except to say they’re both good shows.”

While ATAS is not as secretive about its membership as is its motion picture counterpart, details about who votes for the Emmys remain sketchy, in part because even ATAS knows little about the voters aside from their job descriptions and credits.

We do know that the group has more than 12,000 members in 27 peer groups. The largest of these is the TV executive group, with about 1,500 members, which should come as no surprise to the producers and writers, who sometimes complain that there are too many supervisors to tell them how to do their work. Performers are the second-largest peer group with about 1,400 possible voters, said Barbara Chase, director of membership services. The writers’ peer group numbers roughly 1,200.

On the flip side, the 26th peer group in size is the cinematographers, although Ms. Chase said their number “is on the rise.” The smallest peer group is stunts, with 80 members. Last year this group finally got its own Emmy-for outstanding stunt coordination.

Each peer group has its own qualifications for membership based on either a credit threshold or hours or years of employment. Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which has famously declined to “vote in” even successful motion picture performers-the rejection of Rodney Dangerfield and Rob Schneider received some press notice in the past few years-ATAS is more democratic. If you have the credits and two members to vouch for you, you’re in.

ATAS keeps little demographic information on its members, and what it does have-including information on race, age and gender-is pledged when collected to be for internal use only.

Based on his years of close observation of the industry, Mr. O’Neil believes he has a pretty good idea who actually decides television’s highest honors. “The Emmy voters are heavily over 50,” he said. “They pay [$150] a year to belong. They’re too busy to watch TV shows outside their demographic, meaning most younger-skewing shows are left out, from `Scrubs’ to everything on The WB.”

“Objectively, we do skew older,” Ms. Chase acknowledged. “At least that’s the perception. I don’t know whether that’s the reality. We do face the issue of diversity in all areas.”

ATAS also faces challenges in attracting newcomers. Unlike with AMPAS, where membership is coveted, many successful TV people don’t feel compelled to join ATAS. There are producers, writers and directors who have been nominated or who work on programming that receives nominations, but still do not join.

Responding to Change

The ATAS board of governors is forever changing and tweaking the awards process and the categories-sometimes to mixed effect-to respond to the changes in the TV universe. In 1964-65 there was the debacle of streamlining the large number of specific Emmy categories into fewer “area awards,” such as outstanding entertainment programming. Rod Serling, the visionary writer-producer who pushed for that change as academy president, ended up resigning the post over widespread unhappiness with the move.

For 1973-74, members gave much derided “super-Emmys” in new categories such as actor of the year, which seemed to value some performers over others and spurred threats of actor boycotts. They were dropped the following year.

For the past few years there has been relative stability in the Emmy categories, though as John Leverence, longtime ATAS VP of awards, pointed out, the academy routinely provides outlets for honoring new kinds of shows. “If there is a program genre that airs in prime time, it must fit into some category,” he said. “If there are a sufficient number in that genre, we have always created new categories.”

This year, for the first time on the telecast, the award for outstanding reality-competition program will be presented. And at the nontelecast Creative Arts ceremonies, the outstanding reality program will be honored. [See related article.]

No matter their peer group, all academy members vote in program categories. This year, in an initial round of voting, they were allowed to choose up to 10 favorites in those categories instead of the customary five.

“This was done in the hopes of expanding the opportunity for choice,” said Mr. Leverence, author of “And the Winner Is …: Using Awards Programs to Promote Your Company and Encourage Your Employees.” “As a result of that, there may have been some surprises. Voters could say, `I legitimately believe up to 10 shows are deserving.”‘

Some pundits think this expansion allowed newcomers such as “Arrested Development” to get noticed in the outstanding comedy series category, while sentimental favorites “Friends” and “Frasier” were surprise no-shows in their final year.

“I was a little surprised that `Frasier’ and `Friends’ didn’t make the category,” said Bill Carroll, VP and director of programming, Katz Television Group. “But these shows have been well recognized. One thing that is clear about the Emmys is they are not created to be the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award.”

One change in this year’s ceremony involves the classical music/dance programs. In the past these shows had their own category, but now they will be in a “special class” grouping, a place that Mr. Leverence admitted is where shows go when they have no other home. And these are categories where there is the chance of multiple awards or no awards, so it’s possible that Emmy might snub culture this year.

PBS, which has the most to lose due to this modification, is unconcerned and seemed pleased with its total of 27 nominations, making it competitive this year with Fox (31) and ABC (33). “I think it’s smart of the academy to keep changing,” said Jacoba Atlas, PBS senior VP, co-chief program executive. “We believe our programs are excellent and can compete in whatever category they are assigned. This year our `American Family-Journey of Dreams’ and `Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness’ are right up there in the outstanding miniseries category with `Angels in America,’ which received so much attention.

“We’re proud of `American Family’ (which is produced through KCET-TV, Los Angeles),” Ms. Atlas said. “The audience has found it, and they have responded to it with three Emmy nominations. That’s a lovely reception. We have no complaints.”

Industry Kibitzing

For others, though, the Emmys continue to attract Monday morning quarterbacking about its categories, procedures and results. If the annual alterations by the academy itself indicate that change comes with the territory, then so does commentary by the industry.

“For the past few years the Emmys have had a category for guest stars in TV series-a good idea” said Rick Mitz, creator of numerous TV series, most recently “The Lot.” “The sad thing about it is
there are so many wonderful actors who don’t have a chance of getting a nomination because the academy only recognizes name-brand actors-celebrities-who deem to do a star turn on a series.

“I say `sad,’ because the Emmys could be used to create stars, not just reward stars,” Mr. Mitz said.

Producer Craig Zadan, whose “The Reagans” has seven nominations this year, including one for outstanding television movie, said he wishes he were more connected to the outcome. He was an executive producer of “Chicago,” which won the Academy Award as best picture two years ago, and he is a member of both the TV and motion picture academies.

“With the Oscars, in the final round you vote for every category,” he said. “When I watch the show I feel a complete part of the result. I wish it could be that way with the Emmys, though I’m told with the multitude of categories it just isn’t possible.

“I do think the TV academy did a good thing by going to at-home judging over the past few years,” Mr. Zadan said. “It has increased the number of people making the choices. You really feel as if your category has been given a fair viewing.”

The judging process may yet undergo a big change. Mr. Leverence said that in the interactive categories the peer group members have been casting votes online.

“The academy is working to fix problems,” Mr. O’Neil said. “They will be experimenting with material being sent through broadband distribution, which would increase the assurance that the voters actually see the programs. Down the road you can look for a rollout of that.”

Mr. Carroll spoke for many when he said, “Not knowing what I would recommend as a different system, I’d say the current one, with all its flaws, is still one in which, when all is said and done, the best programs and achievement get recognized.”