One and Done–Are There Any Solutions to Emmy Love Affairs? (And Should There Be?)

Over the past few days, we’ve been examining how often Emmy voters go for the tried and true and to what degree this prevents other deserving shows or performers from winning. The numbers suggest there’s a lot of clumping–in many categories, we’ve gotten nearly 2/3 recycled winners over the last two decades.

The first question, I suppose, is whether this is a problem. If there are obviously superior shows or actors, why should they be punished for being superior–why shouldn’t they get an Emmy every year? We tend to be okay with that in other competitions, like sports–if someone is clearly fastest or strongest, they win, regardless of whether this blocks other athletes from victory. Judging something as subjective as art makes that comparison suspect, but multiple winners might fairly claim they’re simply better.

Feelings on that likely lie with whether you’re in the winners’ camp or the losers’. Die-hard fans of The West Wing are probably less troubled by that show’s four straight wins than fans of The Sopranos are. Fans of CSI: Original Flavor (should they exist) are probably frustrated by the six awards the West Wing and Sopranos crews soaked up. When the Baconeers have picked our potential nomnees, we tend to find we agree with the Academy about 25% of the time. To some extent, people who aren’t crazy about repeat winners just have to accept that Emmy voters’ taste doesn’t match their own.

What’s a little more unsettling, and less just an issue of subjectivity in judging art, perhaps, is the way repeat winners might reveal just what makes up that taste. In terms of shows, patterns appear to reveal a taste for upper-class, well-polished, professionals. Lawyers, politicians, lawyers, doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, lawyers, TV producers, lawyers, real estate agents/contractors, lawyers, fashionistas, lawyers, admen, and lawyers tend to dominate. Looking at this, it’s amazing shows like The Sopranos, The Office, or Everybody Loves Raymond ever won. As we’ve pointed out in previous pieces, anything labeled as “genre”–science fiction, mystery, romance–stands little chance of being nominated, let alone winning. While it’s true there are few shows about the experiences of people of color on TV, such shows are even less likely to be nominated for or win Emmys. Yes, I’m still bitter about The Wire. As the television universe continues to both expand and splinter, more and more quality–and niche–programming is being made. With so much more good stuff to choose from, repeat winners seem less and less justifiable.

Could making changes to the Emmy procedures help break these logjams and spread the wealth to repeat nominees like Hugh Laurie or Steve Carell? Could changes break up the class-taste nexus and bring recognition to other parts of the television spectrum? If so, what should those changes be?

The short answer: heck if we know. We’ve played with lots of possibilities–more categories? Recognizing ensembles? Recognizing the rise of the dramedy?–and have found them all to be largely as arbitrary as the current system. How do you decide who’s a lead actor, a supporting actor, or an ensemble actor? How funny does a show have to be before it gets moved from a drama to a comedy? We don’t know, and we suspect the industry doesn’t know either. We’d love to hear your suggestions, and provide a few possibilities to kick off the chat:

  • Getting rid of categories altogether for nominations. We tried this as an experiment and were astonished how quickly things came together and how easily we were able to find victors in the traditional four acting categories from our list of nominees. Granted, our experiment was very much a pilot study, as the Baconeers tend to be on the same page on TV–how would a broader application work? We kept the nominees segregated by sex–should even that be done away with?
  • Viewing panels. The Academy has tried several variations on this over the past few years, including general voting that created a 10-candidate list from which a “blue ribbon panel” chose the final nominees as well as screening panels for final voting that ensured that–unless they fell asleep in the screening–panelists were voting based on the actual work instead of buzz or social networks. Some argue (and I might agree) that both of these systems shook up the repeat/multiple patterns, but both systems were probably more expensive than the current system and may have further diluted the pool of willing voters (not a great thing if you want to broaden the taste profile of voters). 
  • Forcing winners to sit out a year. Sure, maybe winners tend to be of very high quality (maybe). But are repeat winners really that much better than their competition? If we just said “one and done,” the last five years would look like this:

Drama: 24, The Sopranos, Mad Men, ???, ???

Comedy: The Office, 30 Rock, ???, ???, Modern Family

Actor, Drama: Keifer Sutherland, James Spader, Bryan Cranston, ???, ???

Actress, Drama: Mariska Hargitay, Sally Field, Glenn Close, ???, Kyra Sedgwick

Actor, Comedy: Tony Shalhoub, Ricky Gervais, Alec Baldwin, ???, Jim Parsons

Actress, Comedy: No change

Supporting Actor, Drama: No change

Supporting Actresss, Drama: ??? (Blythe Danner clipped from the year before), Katherine Heigl, Dianne Weist, Cherry Jones, Archie Panjabi

Supporting Actor, Comedy: Jeremy Piven, ???, ???, Jon Cryer, Eric Stonestreet

Supporting Actress, Comedy: No change

Going back only five does lose some of the pattern in some categories–which may be a good sign–and obviously new winners would depend on which years you remove from multiple winners. But there would be more variety. Is that a good thing, or is this merely a Hugh Laurie problem that doesn’t really need fixing? Would opening up just one slot–the repeat or multiple winner–per year open enough room for genre candidates? The first basic cable shows have been nominated in the last few years–is this a sign the Academy tastes are shifting? Is the issue fixing itself? Since our tastes don’t always match the actual nominees very well, we’d hope so–what do you think?

Monday: Ballots are out! We’re hoping for nonsense and weirdness. Rob Lowe, I’m looking at you.

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5 thoughts on “One and Done–Are There Any Solutions to Emmy Love Affairs? (And Should There Be?)

  1. The sports analogy breaks down in that, some form of cheating aside, the winner in a sports competition is whomever scores the most points or crosses the finish line first. So maybe the solution is that the nominees have to race each other and first across the finish line gets the Emmy? 😉

    I think the problem is that there are too many variables to really figure out a solution. As you’ve noted, actors submit one episode. So are repeat nominees (and winners) just folks who are better at picking out an episode to submit? The year Jon Cryer won, he submitted an episode that had a big scene with him doing a lot of physical comedy. Whereas Brad Whitford probably cheated himself out of a nomination the year he submitted Celestial Navigation (if I remember correctly) because while his character was the focus of that episode, it was a lighter episode in the drama category.

    There’s also the personal variable in there. Hollywood is a small town. People in the industry know if you’re a good guy or someone who is horrible to work with. So that could play into it too. Maybe Hugh Laurie kicks puppies and makes babies cry for fun (I, btw, am just using Hugh Laurie as an example, I have no knowledge if he’s nice or not, though I hope so because he’s on my laminated list), and he gets the nomination for the work but not the win.

    The Office was the little show that could it’s first season that only got renewed for a second season because the head of NBC at the time (Kevin Reilly maybe?) liked the show. And then the summer between the first and second season “The 40–Year Old Virgin” came out, Steve Carrell blew up, and people tuned in to the second season to see him. He became a movie star that summer, and voters might feel that because of his big screen success the nomination for The Office is acknowledgement enough for his work. Or maybe he and Hugh Laurie get together and kick puppies on the weekend.

    I think the problem, if it’s going to be solved, needs to be done at the nomination level so that the nominee pool for the panel to select from has more variety. How that happens I have no idea. There’s no chance the industry would go along with an actor having to sit out a year, since winning an Emmy can allow an actor to get more money when it comes time to renegotiate their contract. And despite multiple wins, few actors are going to decide it’s an embarrassment of riches and not submit themselves for consideration as Candace Bergen did in her Murphy Brown years and I think maybe Lithgow did to after a certain point with 3rd Rock.

    The biggest impetus for a change to the Emmy voting process is going to come from the falling ratings, as more of the nominees come from cable shows that only get two million viewers because the tastes of the Emmy voters are so disparate from that of most of America. Who wants to tune in and watch the show if you don’t know any of the nominees (besides Jon Hamm, of course, because he does a jillion other things besides “Mad Men”.)

    I don’t watch Parks & Rec, but cash money on Rob Lowe submitting himself as lead whether he is or not. I’m guessing he didn’t learn anything from the Year Everyone from The West Wing Was Nominated Except Him.

    • I strongly suspect your cash money bet will pay off. 🙂

      I essentially agree with everything you’ve said, and you bring up an interesting question about the tape submission process. I wonder to what extent the class-taste overlay coincides mostly with the shows themselves or can be toyed with by submitting the right tape. Does Christopher Lloyd make the best comedies (I’ve loved ’em), make comedies that best reflect the Academy’s tastes, or have the episode submission process dialed in? Or all of the above?

      Which episode would you have chosen for Whitford in TWW’s first year, given the criteria you point out? The Crackpots and These Women, off the top of my head? Hmm. The “too much comedy for a drama/too much drama for a comedy” question is an interesting one. I’ve wondered, for example, what Glee supporting actors might submit this year. Jane Lynch had little to do, and what might have been her best performance was rage grief, and reflection. Not exactly like Sofia Vergara screeching “Jay! Jay!” over and over (I think they’re both great–just different). Chris Colfer had plenty to do, and was great doing it, but any potential episode he could pick sticks out like a sore thumb. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? And yet the complications of creating a dramedy category are overwhelming.

      I have a hard time imagining Steve Carell kicking puppies. 🙂

      • Yeah, I’d have picked Crackpots for Brad Whitford. He’s got great scenes in that, and in the end Josh makes a noble choice. For a drama submission, that would have been better.

        Jane Lynch is Jane Lynch and she’s awesome and I’m more concerned that her hosting the Emmys will make folks less likely to vote for her than that she doesn’t have enough light scenes to get a nominations. I don’t think Colfer will have a problem either, more because he’s an amazing talent (that boy can sing AND break your heart, often at the same time) and because you’ll have to factor in those who will vote for him as a vote to support the gay and lesbian community since the role of Kurt is a very visible role model. And I’m fine with that since I think his performance is deserving in and of itself.

        I think picking the right submission and putting yourself in the right category (I’m looking at you Rob Lowe) are big things that don’t really get considered in the nomination/voting process. And also what show an actor is on makes a difference too, because I think you’ll often see the actor categories catch the coattails of their show. The above-mentioned Everybody but Rob year for The West Wing, as an example. I’d be interested in looking at the shows that are nominated, and then how many cast members from the those shows captured acting nods. I think you’d find a pretty high correlation.

  2. I don’t think the theory that people in Hollywood vote for the nice guys works. Hugh Laurie, Steve Carell and Martin Sheen are all known for being lovely gentlemen behind the scenes. Meanwhile, infamous douchebags like Charlie Sheen and Jeremy Piven get Emmys. Doesn’t compute.

    I really think the submission process is the likely culprit in a lot of cases. There’s a real art to picking the right episode to submit, and I a lot of actors seem to stink at it.

  3. You are an evil, evil person, because now I have to look at the degree of correlation between nominated shows and nominated actors. How strong does an actor/performance have to be to be noticed outside of the favorite shows voters concentrate on? Neil Patrick Harris pops to mind. I suspect the correlation is extremely high, but it is possible to, you know, actually count. 🙂 In fairness, I find that I have the same problem in thinking about who I would vote for–may as well just take the shows I like best and list the actors in them. Which makes me wonder about returning to the blue-ribbon panel watching 10 potential nominees…

    Under the current system, as long as voters are actually watching the submissions, I think you’re exactly right about picking the right submission (oh, we’ll be returning to that when the nominees are announced, believe you me). I always think of the Alec Baldwin submission of Tracy’s family counseling session. I love Baldwin on that show, and would have had no complaints about him winning regardless, but it was over as soon as he chose that episode. On one hand, at least we know the voters (assuming they watch the submissions) are voting on actual work; on the other hand, it favors one flashy episode over a solid season-long arc. I love both these actors/characters, but it strikes me as highlighting the difference between, say, Eric Stonestreet in a clown costume (which won, and I was delighted to see it) and Jesse Tyler Ferguson crafting an entire season of a less-flashy character.

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