Friday, February 27, 2015

Emmy Rule Changes: Fighting Back Against Category Fraud

In the midst of all the Oscar hoopla, last Friday the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced some pretty major changes to the Emmys, particularly in the ceremony's top categories: Best Comedy Series and Best Drama Series. A lot of these changes are meant to combat category fraud, that awful plague of award shows where a nominee campaigns as something other than what they actually are (for example, a lead performance masquerading as supporting). This is a welcome change of pace, since the Emmys have developed a reputation for being confusing in their definitions of "comedy," "drama," "miniseries," and more. Granted, these terms are being blurred throughout the entire medium of television; it's more a symptom of an greater issue than the root of it.

So let's break down the changes one by one and examine what exactly is changing and what it means for the future of the Emmys.

What changed: Best Comedy Series and Best Drama Series will expand from six to seven nominees.

What this means: This is actually a fairly reasonable change. There's been drastic explosion of television options in recent years - many of which are no longer tethered to "traditional" networks, but rather streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. Even and Playstation are getting into the original programing game, and networks previously best known (if known at all) for their syndicated programing and Cubs games like Pivot and WGN America have recently aired critically-acclaimed original series (Fortitude and Manhattan, respectively). There is, quite frankly, more television available now than ever before.

So it makes sense to expand these categories, allowing more shows the opportunity to earn a nomination. However, seven may not be enough. I personally would advocate for ten nominees in each category; there are certainly more than ten great dramas and ten great comedies on the air right now, and having the categories extend that far would be a great opportunity for smaller shows to get much-need recognition and exposure. Of course, it sounds great in theory. The reality is that the Emmys would continue to avoid certain types of programs in favor of middle-of-the-road shows, so don't hold your breath for Sleepy Hollow to be a Best Drama Series nominee.

But the expansion to seven does provide at least one show a chance at a nomination that previously would have been out of reach. Yet it's the next change that's going to have a greater impact on these categories...

More after the jump.

What changed: The definitions of "Comedy" and "Drama" have been streamlined and reorganized.

What this means: This is perhaps the biggest change of all. The Television Academy now defines a "comedy series" as a program with episode running times of 30 minutes or less, while a "drama series" is a program with episode running times of greater than 30 minutes. A program can petition to be considered in the alternate category, but it must pass with 2/3 of the vote from a nine-chair committee.

This is, no doubt, in response to the recent claims that hour-long "dramedies" like Desperate Housewives, Glee, Shameless, and Orange is the New Black are not actually comedies, even though they competed in that category during their eligibility years. In fact, OITNB was considered a drama by the Golden Globes, further adding to the confusion. So to a certain extent, delineating these definitions along running time makes the most sense, since other factors such as "humor" are far to subjective to actually create consensus.

That being said, this will prove to be a disadvantage to other series. Looking, for example, isn't going to benefit from this distinction since it's a half-hour program but isn't necessarily "funny" (not even in the Girls sense). On the opposite side, the Drama Series category is going to be significantly more crowded, which is going to make it harder to earn one of those seven spots. This is more complicated by hour-long hybrids like OITNB or (especially) Glee, which may be considered too "funny" to be dramas. Shows that fall in the gray area between the two distinctions are likely to end up left out in the cold altogether.

It's not a perfect realignment, but it's a necessary step to clear up category confusion and blatant fraud. Speaking of which...

What changed: "Miniseries" has been renamed "Limited Series," and its definition has been clarified.

What this means: This is without a doubt a direct response to True Detective, which competed in Best Drama Series last year despite the season telling a self-contained story with the promise of a different cast every year. At the same time, American Horror Story has competed as a miniseries, despite having multiple seasons under its belt. If they're essentially the same thing, why do they compete in different categories?

Here's how it's going to work now: a "limited series" is defined as any program that does not have an overarching narrative and/or recurring characters. That includes the legitimate miniseries/"event series" such as Olive Kitteridge, as well as anthology-ish series like American Horror Story, Fargo, and True Detective. It also means that those programs are no longer able to compete in the other categories, so expect this category to get more competitive in the coming years.

The big question mark is where the broadcast networks' "event series" are going to fit in in the future. ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX are still predominantly driven by advertising dollars, and thus if a program is a commercial hit, the network will want more of it. So when FOX's Gracepoint and NBC's The Slap are billed as one-off "event series" but become successful enough to merit more, how do they become classified, especially if the decision for renewal comes before (or during) the nomination process? Moreover, will programs that are cancelled after a single season be eligible as "limited series" if the network deems them so? The answer to that latter question is "maybe," as the Academy notes that any narrative series with at least two but no more than five episodes can qualify as a limited series. But the latter remains to be seen.

There are still some big loopholes here, but this clarification is a step in the right direction.

What changed: The definition of "Guest" acting has been clarified.

What this means: This was perhaps one of the most necessary changes that the Emmys needed to make. Previously, the determination of whether an actor was considered a "guest" had a lot to do with credits, contracts, and SAG credentials, as well as network sorcery. The result is that the category was won by (and featured multiple nominations for) actors who could appear in every single episode, yet were still considered "guests" (see: last year's Best Guest Actress in a Comedy category, when Joan Cusack (Shameless), Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), Natasha Lyonne (OITNB), and winner Uzo Aduba (OITNB) all appeared in at least three-quarters of their shows' episodes).

The rule change stipulates that to be considered a guest actor, you may not appear in more than 50% of the show's eligible episodes. That eliminates many of the issues listed above, and creates a clearer definition of what constitutes a guest performance. It also means that the supporting categories are going to be even more competitive than before, since the option of campaigning as a "guest" is now off the table.

This was one of the most glaring issues with the Emmys, and thankfully it has been resolved now.

What changed: The Variety Series category has been split.

What this means: Ultimately, it means that Saturday Night Live may have a shot at a series Emmy for the first time in over a decade.

Instead of having all variety series compete against each other, the category has been divided into two distinct categories. Best Variety Talk Series is where late-night programs like The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart will compete. Best Variety Sketch Series will be the new home for sketch comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, Broad City, and Key & Peele.

The big improvement here is that, by not having talk and sketch shows compete against each other, more of each will have an opportunity to be recognized. This is especially good news for sketch shows, since the Academy tended to favor talk over sketch in the previously-unified category. The downside: only the Variety Talk Series winner will be broadcast during the Primetime Emmys ceremony, while Variety Sketch Series will be relegated to the untelevised Creative Arts Emmys.

What changed: Voter eligibility for the final round of voting has been expanded.

What this means: On the surface, this seems like a relatively minor change. It doesn't drastically affect any particular category, and most of us have no idea who these voters are in the first place. So no big deal, right?

Except this is the change that may have the biggest ripple effect. There are two separate rounds of voting: the nominating round, in which all members of the Academy are eligible to vote in their respective categories, and the final round, which a "blue-ribbon panel" watches all of the nominees for their selected categories and votes on the winner. The rule change for this year eliminates the "blue-ribbon panel," opening the final round to any voters who voted in the category during the nomination round (in an effort to better utilize the Academy's new computer-based voting system). However, in the final round of voting, all voters have to meet two criteria: they must prove that they do not have a conflict of interest, and must attest that they have seen all of the nominated works online.

The "blue-ribbon panel" process was essentially a safeguard against people voting for their friends, or simply picking the most famous name on the list. And, to a certain degree, that safeguard is still in place based on the caveats provided. But with the number of votes swelling, it will be interesting to see if we still get oddball winners like Jeff Daniels' Best Actor in a Drama Series triumph two years ago (for The Newsroom) or if the winners align closer to the consensus over the years. There's a lot of potential for things to get funky in the major races now, which will be exciting to watch.

Except Jim Parsons will still win the damn Best Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy.

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