A brief history of Emmys voting guidelines—and snafus

The 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards will air on September 19. It’s an interesting year to celebrate television, when most audiences have been indoors and clinging to the medium as a way to pull through, well, everything. The 2021 Emmys will look slightly because several notable series—among them, Succession, Barry, Insecure, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Ozark, and Better Call Saul—were left out of the running due to pandemic-related delays. (At this moment, we only have premiere dates for Succession’s third season and the final season of Insecure.) As a result, a few previously overlooked shows and performers have secured a spot among the nominees, including Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys, Hulu’s Pen15, and Pose star MJ Rodriguez.

This year’s group of nominations has plenty of familiar faces, but there are also a few head-scratchers. Before the nomination period even began, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (a.k.a. the TV Academy) reversed its December 2020 decision to combine the Variety Sketch and Variety Talk categories. These vacillations and other changes reflect the Academy’s attempts to navigate TV’s shifting landscape. Since the advent of streaming, it’s become increasingly difficult to represent and reward the multitude of shows on the air, on cable, or online. Part of what makes the nominations announcements and awards night so confounding is that many viewers aren’t aware of these changes and restrictions. So we’ve put together this brief history of the biggest shakeups in Emmys categories and voting rules, to help everyone better understand the shifts and how the Academy can optimize the rules for the future.

HBO leads premium cable’s foray into the Emmys in the 2000s

The TV Academy allowed for cable show nominations starting in 1988, but none received any major drama or comedy nods until 1993, when The Larry Sanders Show was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series. That HBO series never won, but at the start of the new millennium, Sex And The City finally broke that barrier. And just like that, the Emmys welcomed cable TV into the fold. SATC’s win in 2001 proved to be a sign of changing times, especially once The Sopranos joined the fray. The acclaimed series became the first cable show to win Outstanding Drama in 2004, five years after its first set of nominations, but stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco had already picked up three Lead Actor and Lead Actress in a Drama awards apiece by then. The Sopranos’ win in the most prestigious Emmy category meant that risky, inventive programs were in the same league, awards-wise, as the more mainstream competition like ER, Law & Order, The West Wing, Frasier, and Will & Grace. This development carries weight even today, as HBO became and continues to be an awards magnet—though an even bigger change to the TV industry was on the horizon.

Netflix and the binge-watch usher in a new era

If HBO changed the game in the early 2000s, Netflix shaped the next decade (and, inevitably, the future). It’s why your dollars are now divided up across an assortment of streaming platforms. The TV Academy actually opened up eligibility for web-based shows in 2008; House Of Cards and Arrested Development’s revival pushed Netflix to the forefront in 2013, followed by Orange Is The New Black and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. The critically acclaimed, popular series established a stronger footing with multiple Emmy nominations and subsequent wins. It opened the floodgates for new ways to consume content. Netflix directly competed with the traditional weekly release model when it launched, bringing the concept of binge-watches to the mainstream.

While that distribution model has changed in the last two years—Hulu, Disney+, Apple TV+ opt for new episodes weekly, as does Netflix with its reality TV slate—there is now a deluge of original streaming shows competing for Emmy nominations. This emergence has resulted in fewer nods for linear programs. To boost broadcast networks, the Academy even changed a rule to give them the same flexibility as streamers when it comes to distributing episodes privately to members earlier if they don’t change in content once they air and are available for the public sometime in June, a month outside the eligibility period.

Sweeping changes to the blue-ribbon panels prompt greater member participation—in theory

The TV Academy used blue-ribbon panels in the final round of voting for years. The panelists were a few members who holed up for days to watch nominated programs over a short period of time. It was a form of assurance that all the nominees were actually being seen. (No cheating allowed, even if the assignment is to watch TV and pass judgment.) This panel was composed of volunteers—a few dozen retired or older members with more free time representing thousands of members overall. As Emily VanDerWerff wrote in 2015 for Vox, “This process, in particular, has been blamed for everything from the same people winning Emmys year after year after year to the awards’ slowness to recognize groundbreaking programs.” Before 2009, similar panels decided Emmy nominees; they would narrow down five shows and performers out of the 10 who received the most votes.

Starting in 2015, this rule underwent a sweeping and much-needed change. All members of the Academy could vote in their own special branches: writing, direction, acting, makeup and hairstyle, etc. It was an effort to increase member participation. The two big rules are that voters must watch the required submitted material and attest to no specific conflicts of interest with the nominees. They’re all now on the honor system; it’s presumed that they take the time to watch as much TV as they can through digital screeners to select the best possible nominees and winners rather than going with the ones with the most online buzz—even if the talk isn’t necessarily positive (ahem, Emily In Paris). It’s clearly still a work in progress.

The Academy redefines the comedy and the drama, eventually leading to the expansion of both categories

Admit it, “dramedy” is a frequently used word in your vocabulary, now that the line between comedy and drama has blurred significantly in the streaming era. The Emmys are trying to reflect the growing change, with mixed results. Orange Is The New Black might be the ur-example. Jenji Kohan’s Netflix series received 12 Emmy nominations for its first season in 2014, including spots in the Outstanding Comedy, Lead Actress, and Supporting actress categories. But the episode runtimes clocked in at close to an hour, and stories skewed more dramatic with some comedic elements.

Prospective nominees used to be able choose which categories they submitted for—which led some to shove their shows into a category they thought would boost their chances. But in 2015, the Academy established a rule for what constitutes a drama and a comedy based on episode length: Half-hour shows were designated as comedies and shows with hour-long or more runtimes as drama. (Though this distinction was formalized within the TV Academy in 2015, it’s a standard that long predates the rule.)

If this sounds incredibly limiting, that’s because it is. The Academy therefore allows shows to appeal this classification. That’s how The Flight Attendant, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Shameless have been able to compete as comedies despite episodes running more than 30 minutes. In 2019, Variety reported on a stipulation that was added: “A program that has entered in one category one year may appeal to move it to another category in any subsequent year, with the understanding that the change locks it into that category without the opportunity for another recategorization.” No flip-flopping allowed.

This ties into how many shows and performers can be nominated for any given category. A 2020 rule change dictates that the number of nominees will be determined by how many shows or actors submit entries. In previous years, most categories usually had about five nominees, but it’s now on a sliding scale: one to 19 submissions will lead to zero to four nominations, 20 to 80 is five, 81 to 60 submissions is six nominations, 161 to 240 is seven, and over 240 is eight. As of 2020, the Outstanding Drama and Comedy categories each have eight nominees, regardless of the number of submissions. The expansion has allowed a variety of programs to compete on awards night, including several in the science-fiction and superhero genres.

The rise of anthologies reshapes the limited series category

It’s been an excellent year for limited series and anthology series, but their corresponding categories at the Emmys have historically been scrutinized—combined, separated, and re-combined with their counterparts in made-for-TV movies. More recently, the awards recognizing the best miniseries and TV movies were merged in 2011, owing to decreasing submissions for the former. But the Academy should’ve shown a little patience: That was also the year American Horror Story premiered, and its popularity led to a resurgence in limited series. The awards were uncoupled in 2014; the Outstanding Limited Series award was introduced for the 2015-2016 season, which is when the TV Academy set new parameters for the category, requiring eligible series to tell a complete and non-recurring story in two or more episodes spanning at least 150 minutes of runtime, with no ongoing storyline or character between seasons. That’s why 2017 Outstanding Limited Series winner Big Little Lies had to move to the drama competition for its second season.

The success of episodic anthologies like Black Mirror and dramas like BBC’s Sherlock, whose individual episodes were submitted as TV movies, added to the chaos. Three Black Mirror episodes won the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie from 2017 to 2019. As a result, a minimum 75-minute threshold rule was set (at 61 minutes, 2017 winner “San Junipero” wouldn’t have made the cut). In yet another change, a 2021 rule added anthology series to the limited series category instead of competing as a comedy or drama. As stated by the Academy, “this will align storytelling formats throughout the competition. Individual achievements will compete in the relevant categories as defined by the program category.” But will it explain why Small Axe was snubbed and Hamilton, a TV production of a stage play that took place five years ago, nabbed multiple TV movie nominations? Outlook cloudy.

The Academy takes the Variety Talk and Sketch series categories on a wild ride

This year’s list of nominations for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series is frustratingly short: It’s just Saturday Night Live and A Black Lady Sketch Show. SNL’s immense popularity all but guarantees it a win. It could’ve been worse; in late 2020, the Academy decided to recombine its Variety Talk and Variety Sketch series categories, which were thankfully split into two in 2015. But as we discussed after the Emmy nominations were announced, Emmy rules limit the nominations to two since there were fewer entrants in 2021: just nine, to be specific. Other contenders included Ziwe, How To With John Wilson, and Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready.

Even for Outstanding Variety Talk shows, the rules seriously need to be revamped. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver has claimed the prize every year since 2016 but it’s a weekly show, while fellow nominees Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, produce episodes every weekday. It’s not a fair comparison. Perhaps the Academy can further divide talk shows to accurately reflect the format instead of merging them all under one umbrella. It will make room for a fair inclusion of other weekly shows like Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, Desus & Mero, The Amber Ruffin Show, and give an overdue nod to egregiously snubbed Late Night With Seth Meyers, which is more along the lines of the frequently nominated shows hosted by Kimmel, Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and James Corden.

The trouble with the Guest Actor/Guest Actress categories

Nothing makes a stronger case for overhauling the Outstanding Guest Actor/Guest Actress category rule than Claire Foy’s win at this year’s Creative Arts Emmys. The actor played Queen Elizabeth II in the first two seasons of Netflix’s The Crown, for which she was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama in 2017 and 2018. She was victorious on the second try, and recently won her second Emmy, for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama, for her performance as Elizabeth II… for a brief line reading in season four.

No offense to the tremendously talented Foy, but her win is further proof that Emmy voters love the familiar—a known name and past winner like her carries more weight than performances that lasted more than a couple of minutes. (Besides, McKenna Grace clearly should have won for The Handmaid’s Tale). At the 2006 Emmys, Ellen Burstyn was nominated and won for a 14-second appearance, causing quite the uproar. This year, Don Cheadle’s nomination for a 90-second cameo in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier resulted in confusion. Desperate Housewives’ Kathryn Joosten was nominated three times for Outstanding Guest Actress and won twice, despite appearing in 87 episodes of the series and winning the ensemble award with the rest of the cast at the SAG Awards in 2005.

It’s been a wild ride, but the TV Academy has since changed the rules. Only performers appearing in less than 50% of a program’s episodes are now eligible to submit and be considered a “guest” actor. This is certainly not a solution, especially considering Foy’s win. The TV Academy needs to set a minimum-length rule (like it did for TV movies) to better sort out contenders.