The Emmys Have Problems
Part 1: A Possible Way To Fix Them
No sooner had the Emmys ended their broadcast then Twitter started the hashtag #EmmysSoWhite to protest that for all the record number of nominees of color, not one actor of color had won. (They all seemed to have ignored the fact that Michaela Coel became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for writing in a Limited Series and they clearly hadn’t noticed that three of the winners for Guest Actor and Actress the night before had been actors of color, but I’m going to let that pass for now.) Now I’ll admit I was fiercely disappointed that Michael K. Williams didn’t win Best Supporting Actor and I would have liked to see MJ Rodriguez win too. That being said, there is a larger issue with the Emmys that, despite my general happiness with the results, I think both the Academy and television would do well to ignore.
First, there is the problem of sweeps in major awards. For the second straight year, all seven major Emmys in a genre went to the same series. This is actually indicative of a bigger problem, the tendency of a major series to win the lion’s share of the awards at the expense of often better shows. This has been more obvious in the Limited Series category over the past six years, but it is happened more often then not throughout the last twenty years of my watching the Emmys. The same series would win in the major categories year after year: Mad Men from 2007–2010, Modern Family 2010–2014, Veep 2015–2017 and the last four seasons of Game of Thrones. There has been some room for variety; ten different actors have won Best Actor in a Drama over the past decade and Best Comedy has been won by a different series for four successive years. But when the lion’s shares of the same series dominate the nominations year after year, you can understand why there is frustration. No one really knows why three years after it peaked, The Handmaid’s Tale got eight acting nominations.
More to the point is a larger problem. Streaming and cable have so dominated the awards shows for the last decade that network television is practically non-existent. In the past decade, only three actors from a broadcast drama have won an Acting Emmy — and Juliana Margulies counts twice. It’s actually worse when it comes to comedies: the only winners that haven’t been from cable the past six years all starred on Saturday Night Live. The decline in Emmy viewership and broadcast television recognition from the Emmys is not, in my opinion, a coincidence. You can’t exactly draw eyeballs to a broadcast for series that only an increasingly fragmented group of viewers will watch. And the fact there are too many advantages streaming and cable have that networks can’t compete with.
And of course, there is also the simple fact there’s just too much TV to watch. No matter how many series or actors the Emmys add to every category, there are always going to be too many left out. And when so many of the same series dominate multiple categories, there’s even less room for them.
Can this problem be solved? It would take a lot of work. And fortunately, there me a group that can provide us with guidance.
(Note: For those of you who read my blog and think it hypocritical for me to praise the Emmys on a Monday and criticize how they do business on a Tuesday, I have two reasons: First, I have been advocating for Emmy nomination reform for at least twenty years and second, just because I think they got the results right this year doesn’t mean it’ll happen again for a very long time. I’d rather not wait another decade for this to happen.)
For those of you who follow my blog regularly, you might recall that this past July and August I wrote a series of basically ecstatic columns about the achievement of the Hollywood Critics Association first ever awards for Television. I’ll do my best to avoid repeating myself, but here is the fundamental thing that they did perfectly: In addition to giving awards in Drama, Comedy and Limited Series, they broke down almost every major award group into broadcast, cable and streaming.
Now for the past decade, I’ve been trying to get the Emmys to acknowledge the fact that they’ve been letting so much great broadcast television slip under the radar. Not once did it ever occur to me that the simplest way to solve this Gordian knot was to slash it apart. Of course we should acknowledge that the broadcast networks have to play by different rules than cable and streaming. It may not seem fair to many people in television, but neither is the way the Emmys (and honestly, almost every other awards group) have basically decided that a series as pedestrian as Emily in Paris was somehow superior to Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. Network Television, by design, can’t compete in the same universe as cable or streaming. I think it’s about time we admitted it.
And I have to say, given how well, the HCA ended up working in its inaugural awards that the system basically worked. All of the Comedy Awards (Broadcast and Cable did compete in acting awards) went to network series. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist recognized Jane Levy for Best Actress and Mary Steenburgen for Best Supporting Actress. Best Actor went to Ted Danson for Mr. Mayor, a nomination that everybody had been expecting and were astonished didn’t happen. Best Supporting Actor went to Nico Santos for Superstore, an actor and a series that Emmys spent its entire six year run ignoring. And while could question why Young Rock ended up taking Best Network Comedy, one would be hard pressed to argue that it wasn’t a different choice.
And for those of you who are trending EmmysSoWhite, you couldn’t make that argument about the HCA. I’d have to double check all the nominations to be certain of this, but I honestly believe there were even more nominees of color than there were at this year’s Emmys. There sure as hell were more winners of color. Not just Michael K. Williams for Lovecraft Country, but MJ Rodriguez and Billy Porter were more than free to take Best Actress and Actor in a Drama, Broadcast or Cable, while Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin won for The Crown in the Streaming Drama category. I didn’t agree with Colman Domingo winning for the Euphoria two-part special, but I’d be hard pressed to say it wasn’t a better choice than Ewan McGregor. Throw in Santos’ win and Dwayne Johnson’s accepting for Young Rock, that’s six wins for minority actors. I’m damn sure that’s better than the Emmys have ever done in their history.
And if I’m being honest this approach is good not just for Broadcast Television but also for cable and streaming. The winner for Best Cable Drama went not to Pose or Lovecraft Country, but rather to Freeform’s incredible series Cruel Summer, a series that was completely ignored by the Emmys and is on my shortlist for the Best Show of the year period. The Best Comedy on cable went to Resident Alien, a bizarre outlandish series on the SyFy channel. These networks have been producing increasingly brilliant dramas and comedies for years, but don’t even get recognized by the Emmys. This would solve a lot of problems.
It’s hard to make a similar argument when it comes to streaming television — they did, after all, pretty much dominate the Emmy nominations and awards this year — but this process did allow for a certain amount of recognition to a lot of shows that basically have been ignored. There’s AppleTV’s Dickinson, Mythic Quest and Servant (Rupert Grint actually managed an upset win for Supporting Actor in that category) and The Falcon and The Winter Soldier and The Boys got more recognition than they did from the Emmys. So did Girls5Eva and Made for Love. Better still, in my opinion, The Handmaid’s Tale and Hamilton got less.
I’m not saying that there would be kinks in the process or that it would work perfectly. But given everything we have seen from the Emmys over the past decades, and all the complaints that everybody has now, it is really hard to imagine that the process we currently have is working. You can make as many changes to the voting process as you want, you can enlarge the number of nominations per category, you can change the qualifications of who gets to vote in the first place but as I have argued for years, the Emmys is stubbornly and utterly resistant to change.
The thing is, they might be willing to accept this group with far less pushing. In the past few years, they have major adjustments in their makeup and costume awards after period pieces and fantasy pieces kept winning all the time. So now there’ are contenders for period and fantasy and contemporary costumes. Visual and sound effects awards kept going to fantasy and sci-fi shows, so now they’re divided them among non-fantasy. The Academy’s also been making similar division in these categories when it comes to one hour or half-hour programming.
By comparison the rules the HCA are following and that I’m suggested would involved a lot less heavy lifting and probably satisfy everybody: the networks would be happy because they’d be getting recognized, cable would be happy because more networks could compete more prominent, and oh yeah, viewers would be happier because more series they actually saw would be competing as well.
And yeah, I get it, the show would be longer. Might I suggest putting the Late Night awards and reality awards all in the creative arts Emmys? They’re halfway their already by now. You’ve already moved TV Movie there, and honestly, when you can only come up with two nominees for Sketch Comedy series, you don’t need to give that award in the big ceremony either. There are probably other ways to cut fat, but I’ll worry about that later.
Now the thing is, the Emmys need to take some drastic steps. And it’s not just about broadcast networks or the lack of diversity. In a way, it bears probably on how long Peak TV ends up lasting. In my next article, I’ll deal with what the Emmys is doing now, what they’ve always done, and why that desperately needs to change.