Eye on the Emmys: ATAS Convinced Broader Ballots are Having Impact

Aug 15, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Alan Hill

Special to TelevisionWeek

Tweaking the voting process has been an activity endemic to the Emmy Awards since its inception, but three years ago the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences board of directors approved what might be termed fundamental changes to the system.

It’s debatable whether these changes have opened the process and put a dent in the year-after-year dominance of the program categories by what tend to be the same shows, but ATAS says in the wider view, the adjustments have been a success.

Members can now mark 10 choices instead of five on the ballots in programming categories, and the judging, formerly done by panels on-site in hotel rooms, is now accomplished at home with a larger pool of participants.

“The intent was to allow people more latitude for their preferences,” said John Leverence, senior VP of awards for ATAS. “You might think seven, eight or nine shows are worthy, not just five. In that sense it has been well received.”

Yet a perusal of the program categories indicates the nominees in first-time contention may not be surprises. Mr. Leverence agreed that freshman shows such as “Desperate Housewives” in comedy series and “Lost” in drama series had not only strong ratings this season but also industry buzz.

Did “Scrubs” make the cut for comedy series because the process opened up or because the show had been behind the pack in the past and the retiring of perennial nominees “Frasier,” “Friends” and “Sex and the City” created openings in the field?

The same question goes for drama series, among which “Deadwood” gained a spot in a season that its HBO sibling “The Sopranos” ran no new episodes.

In the reality-competition series category, we see the return of two-time winner “The Amazing Race” as well as “American Idol,” “The Apprentice” and “Survivor,” with only one new nominee, Bravo’s freshman series “Project Runway.”

Despite the tweaks, there remains a sense that the nominations can become almost institutionalized, that once an artist or a program breaks through to the final list, he, she or it will likely remain until the show is no longer on the air.

This leads to depictions in both the commercial and trade press that other critically acclaimed performances and shows are being snubbed if they are not nominated.

“The idea of being ‘snubbed’ is one that suggests there was a conspiracy or concerted effort not to nominate a show or individual,” said ATAS Chairman and CEO Dick Askin without a hint of defensiveness in his tone.

“The whole thing is, look at the list,” Mr. Askin said. “Look at how many good choices there are. You’d be hard-pressed not to be able to make a case for each and every nominee. Snubbed? No, I think it’s a case of people seeing that a good show was left out and wanting to express that it was good enough to be included.”

Each year, the industry and its pundits analytically slice and dice the nominations, leading to the inevitable question: Who actually votes?

Aside from making available the number of members in each peer group, which ranges from the highs of television executives (1,600 members,) actors (1,400) and writers (1,200) to the smaller groups such as cinematographers (115 members), commercials (165) and children’s (167), ATAS releases scant information about its approximately 12,000 members.

It may do this because it actually has very little information about them. On membership forms, including renewals, the information requested is almost entirely about which programs the individual worked on during the past year and in what capacities. Some information about ethnicity and gender is requested on a voluntary basis, but with the promise of strict confidentiality.

Even Emmy magazine, the official publication of the academy distributed to every member and associate member (nonvoting, often students), releases little information. Of its 14,000 subscribers, 13,500 are members or associate members.

Most magazines offer prospective advertisers detailed demographics about their readers as a lure to get their business, and the information often includes age and income levels and even ownership of large-ticket consumer goods.

Emmy magazine has a nine-page media kit to send to advertisers, and while it includes details about ad rates and even a list of ongoing advertisers, the only reader information offered is that the key age demographic is 35 to 54 and that the subscribers are 55 percent male and 45 percent female.

There has been an ongoing assumption that the ATAS membership skews older than the industry itself. Mr. Askin denies this but does admit that there are many eligible people in the TV industry who either let their memberships lapse or simply have never joined.

Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, joining ATAS is not by invitation or peer group approval. A working professional can join ATAS simply by compiling the required number of credits or credited hours, which varies by peer group.

“Often we’re having lunch with a top producer or writer or actor and we find they are not a member,” Mr. Askin said. “They say they never knew how to join or were never asked. Inevitably, by the end of the week we’ve gotten them the paperwork and they have joined.”

Mr. Leverence offered some basic statistics about the Emmy voting. Each year there are on average 9,500 to 9,800 Emmy ballots returned on the first round, which determines the final nominations. This means that more than three-quarters of the membership votes in any given year. Mr. Leverence also noted that the smaller peer groups tend to have a higher percentage of voters returning ballots than the larger ones.

There are often whispers within the industry that studios, networks and companies arm-twist their employees to vote for shows that they have a hand in.

Hollywood history plays a part in this notion. In the early days of the Academy Awards people voted along company lines, and studios are said to have filled out the ballots and handed them to employees for signatures. It is legend that Bette Davis did not receive a nomination for her groundbreaking work in “Of Human Bondage” (1934) because she did the film on loan-out to RKO and that neither that studio nor her home studio of Warner Bros. would back her for a nomination.

While it is known that some companies provide ATAS membership applications for their executives and encourage them to join, anything else is merely anecdotal. Said Mr. Leverence: “People tend to vote the way they want to vote when they have their ballot in their hands.”

Whatever the approval or criticism of changes in the voting process made by ATAS, the membership should be aware that real radical change is looming.

The key to the proposed dramatic change is broadband. Already the interactive peer group votes via the Web, as do cinematographers in some categories.

“We will see an expansion of online voting in the near future,” Mr. Leverence said, “and the ability of voters to screen programs through VOD. You will eventually see e-balloting across the board.

“There are huge problems to overcome before this happens,” he cautioned. “Voters will have to be able to deliver their choices with encrypted votes. But by next year you will see additional categories chosen this way, moving toward both viewing prospective nominees and the actual voting will be at the click of a button.”

The age of the screener-that VHS or DVD copy of programs that often cost networks and studios millions of dollars to create and distribute-is coming to a close.