Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Rule Changes for the Emmys: What Do They Mean?

In the midst of all the excitement surrounding the Oscars, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced that they were making a handful of rule changes for the 66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, which will be held on Monday, August 25, 2014. Yes, Monday, thanks to football on NBC, who are broadcasting this year's ceremony. Now, a lot of this is simply awards-show-geek material, with little real bearing on anything other than those who are involved in the effected categories. However, a few of the rule changes to spotlight changing trends in the ways we watch television and how certain genres are produced, which are always topics worthy of discussion.

Below I've included all six changes, with my interpretations/explanations of what they mean going forward for the Emmys.

Rule Change #1: The Outstanding Miniseries/TV Movie category is being split into two separate categories.

What does this mean? It was only a few years ago that these were separate entities; only the past three ceremonies have featured the combined category. In 2009 and 2010, the Outstanding Miniseries category fielded a pitiful two nominees each year, thanks to a dearth of eligible works. In fact, you have to go back to 2004 to find the last time the category fielded a full five nominees, and even then it was an anomaly to have that many (2003 had three nominees, while 2002 and 2005 had four). Meanwhile, there was a plethora of made-for-TV movies during the '00s, and the category had no trouble stacking itself with nominees. HBO was mostly responsible for this: between 2000 and the category's disbandment in 2010, the network aired 33 of the 56 nominees, and 9 of the 11 winners. It was clear that the miniseries had fallen out of style, especially with the Big Four networks of CBS, NBC, FOX, and ABC, while the made-for-TV movie was the hot-ticket item.

Yet at the same time that the Academy combined the two categories, as if on cue, the miniseries began making a comeback. By 2013 it had fully exploded, with seemingly every network trying their handed at a "limited series" or "limited event" or however they chose to market it (interestingly, some networks even submitted single-season shows they had cancelled for consideration). In each of the three years of the combined category, at least three of the six nominees were miniseries, with four in 2011 and 2013. Granted, movies won in two of the three years, but, simply put, it's much too competitive to combine the two anymore. Even if what constitutes a miniseries is questionably vague - see anthology series like American Horror Story and, inevitably, True Detective submitting each new "season" here - there's no denying that the form is back. The made-for-TV movie doesn't need to worry about suffering a similar fate this decade to what the miniseries faced in the previous one, either, because they will always be relatively cheap, easy alternatives for the networks to produce. Ultimately, it makes sense to break these two back up into separate categories, even if it does mean more awards have to be handed out.

More after the jump.

Rule Change #2: Outstanding Reality Series is being split into two separate categories, Outstanding Structured Reality Series and Outstanding Unstructured Reality Series.

What does this mean? Basically the distinction comes down to semantics. A "structured" reality series is one where there is a set format for the way an episode proceeds, and most episodes follow this format through-and-through. An example of this would be Mythbusters, in which a myth is presented, Jamie, Adam, and the rest of the crew set out to test its veracity, then discuss the conclusions of their experiment. Most episodes of the show don't stray from this format. An "unstructured" reality series is one where there is no standard format; instead, each episode has its own little narratives and action unfolds "naturally" before the camera. These are the kinds of shows that we usually associate with the genre: Teen Mom, Duck Dynasty, The Real Housewives of Orange County, etc. However, this excludes competition series such as American Idol or Survivor, because they already have their own category.

Now, obviously, "unstructured" is something of a misnomer, in the same way that these shows are "unscripted." But what the difference essentially comes down to is the idea that the former Reality Series category wasn't inclusive enough of what reality television has to offer. The category, since its inception in 2001, has overwhelmingly favored "structured" reality series to "unstructured" ones; of the 12 winners of this category, only five were arguably "unstructured." Even last year, five of the six nominees fall into the "structured" category, with only Deadliest Catch representing "unstructured" shows. So clearly what the Academy is going for here is more openness in its recognition of reality shows (most likely because of programs like Duck Dynasty achieving cultural cache), allowing more freewheeling shows to be nominated. Expect Bravo to start dominating the "unstructured" nominations.

Rule Change #3: Outstanding Voice-Over is being split into two separate categories, Outstanding Narrator and Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance.

What does this mean? This is a little tricky. During most of the Outstanding Voice-Over category's history, it was a juried award, meaning that there were no nominees and only the winner(s) were announced. This changed in 2009, when the category became a general one and fielded nominees that were then voted on for a winner. However, there was no distinction to what "voice-over" was limited to. Therefore, most years - both in the voted-on and juried years - winners and nominees have been a mix of voice actors in animated series, narrators in informative specials, and narrators in live-action series (Brenda Strong was a two-time nominee for Desperate Housewives). Essentially, if your voice was heard but you were not seen, you were eligible to compete in this one category.

The decision to split this category was likely the result of demand to recognize the differences between types of voice work. For example, Lily Tomlin won last year's award for narrating HBO's documentary An Apology to Elephants, beating out five other nominees whose work were for voicing animated characters. This is a split that needed to happen. Providing narration requires a different approach and skill set than voicing a character. It's still uncertain how this will play out in terms of live-action series: is Outstanding Narrator limited only to documentaries, or does the role of "narrator" in a series count as a character (I'm guessing both are true)? Either way, it still clears up a lot of confusion in this category, and hopefully allows the Academy to recognize previously-unheralded work on both sides.

Rule Change #4: There will be an increase from five to six nominees in the Miniseries/TV Movie categories.

What does this mean? Really, it just makes sense. The Comedy and Drama fields all have six nominees in their categories, so why should Miniseries/TV Movie be restricted to only five nominees in the acting, directing, and writing categories? This will open those categories up a little more, and hopefully result in some interesting choices going forward.

Rule Change #5: Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series will have the "2% Rule" applied to them.

What does this mean? I'll be upfront with you: there's a little bit of math involved in this explanation. The "2% Rule" means that if a eligible submission's total first-round votes are within 2% difference from the cutoff submission, then the aforementioned submission is granted a nomination and the category is extended to include it.

In laymen's terms: Best Comedy Series, in its current form, allows for six nominees. Let's say that, in ranking the number of total first-round votes, Veep finishes in sixth place and New Girl finishes in seventh. If the total votes of New Girl are within a 2% of the total votes for Veep - say, 200 for the latter and 197 for the former - then New Girl becomes the seventh nominee in the category. In other words, the standard number of nominees can be extended by one if the votes are close enough.

The Academy had only previously applied this rule to categories with a standard five nominees, but has chosen now to extend it to Comedy and Drama Series, both of which usually have six nominees. However, this wouldn't be the first time either category has fielded more than six nominees: in 2009, both had seven nominees thanks to ties in the voting. It also doesn't set seven nominees as the standard: six is still the norm, with the possibility of seven depending on how voting shakes out. It makes both categories a little more competitive, and offers the possibility of surprise nominees in each category when passionate favorites come close enough.

Rule Change #6: Outstanding Technical Direction/Camerawork/Video is an area award.

What does this mean? This one is a little more obscure. Basically, it means that more than one program can now win the award, with the addition of the category being extended to six nominees. I don't really know much more beyond that.

So there you have it. It'll be interesting to see how these will play out later this year.

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