Emmys change eligibility rules, but does that solve all the category confusion?

Senior Television Writer
02.20.15 48 Comments

As scripted television programming has both exploded and evolved rapidly over the last few years, the Emmys have seemed at a loss for how to keep up. What’s a drama these days? What’s a comedy? What’s a miniseries? Who’s a guest star? How can we make room for all the great shows being made at the same time?

For a while, it seemed as if the Television Academy was content to keep the same eligibility rules in place, even if that led to confusing situations like “Fargo” and “American Horror Story” competing as miniseries while “True Detective” competed as a drama, or “Orange Is the New Black” competing in the comedy categories against the likes of “Modern Family” and “Big Bang Theory.”

Today, though, the Academy announced a round of changes to their rules which, according to the press release, “reflect the increasingly varied and expanding television landscape.”

Some of the changes seem very smart, some seem to be making the best of an impossible situation, and some are unclear because of the introduction of a new appeals process.

The changes:

* The first one’s not related to eligibility, but is potentially huge in its own way. Previously, all Academy members could make choices in the nominating round, but only people who volunteered to be on a Blue Ribbon panel could vote for the winners of a category. Now, the final round voting is open to the whole membership, provided voters agree to watch all the submitted episodes in that category and can attest to “no specific conflicts of interest with the nominees.”

* To acknowledge just how much good stuff is out there now, the comedy and drama series categories will now have seven nominees rather than six.

* Quoting verbatim for this one: “To clarify the difference between the ‘Comedy’ and ‘Drama’ series categories, series with episodes of 30 minutes or less are defined as a ‘Comedy’; those with episodes of more than 30 minutes are presumed to be a ‘Drama.'” However, producers can formally petition a nine-member panel – made up of “five industry leaders appointed by the Television Academy Chairman and four appointees from the Board of Governors” – to be placed in the other category.

* The miniseries categories will now refer instead to “Limited Series,” and be defined as “programs of two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 program minutes that tell a complete, non-recurring story, and do not have an ongoing storyline and/or main characters in subsequent seasons.” Comedy and drama series still have to produce a minimum of six episodes in the eligibility period and “have an ongoing storyline, theme and main characters presented under the same title and with continuity of production supervision.” And, again, producers can petition to be shifted in or out of the limited series field.

* In an acknowledgment that many shows now treat contractual regulars and recurring guest stars more or less interchangeably, performers must appear in “less than 50% of a program’s episodes” to qualify for any of the guest actor categories.

* The Variety Series category will be split in two: Outstanding Variety Talk, which will be presented during the Primetime Emmy telecast, and Outstanding Variety Sketch, which will be part of the Creative Arts Emmy ceremony.

So, among the oddities from the most recent Emmys that would have been different under these rules:

* “True Detective” would have competed with “Fargo,” “American Horror Story,” et al in the limited series fields.

* “Orange Is the New Black” would have competed as a drama, and comedy guest actress winner Uzo Aduba would have had to compete in the drama supporting actress category, since she was in the majority of that season’s episodes.

* “Shameless” would have remained under consideration as a drama (it shifted categories last year), where it likely would have continued to go without nominations.

Now, many of these changes are just basic common sense. Aduba, Robert Morse and other people who are cast regulars in every way but their contract status shouldn’t be able to game the system because the guest actor loophole existed. And the various anthology miniseries should all be competing with one another, rather than having some of them in one field and some in another, depending on the whims of that network. (Though in hindsight, HBO would have probably had better luck if “True Detective” hadn’t been going against the final season of “Breaking Bad.”) And the ability to separate out your “Tonight Show”s and even “Daily Show”s from the likes of “SNL” and “Key & Peele” is also logical.

The 60 minute vs. 30 minute distinction is the tricky one, though whether it matters will depend entirely on how willing the special panel will be to approve various petitions for category-hopping.

The problem is that there are so many shows that exist in a nether region between comedy and drama today, regardless of length. “Orange Is the New Black” doesn’t have a ton in common with “Modern Family” or “Veep,” but nor does it necessarily with “Game of Thrones” or “House of Cards.” Spiritually and tonally, it’s similar to “Transparent,” “Girls” and “Louie,” but because those shows are 30 minutes and “Orange” is 60, they’ll wind up in different categories.

I just don’t know that there’s an ideal solution for this. Even renaming those categories something like “Outstanding Half-Hour Series” and “Outstanding Hour-Long Series” only does so much, particularly with the existence of this new anthology miniseries sub-genre(*).

(*) It’s also not clear what would have happened to the likes of “Tremé” and “Luther” – new seasons of ongoing series that got classified as mini-series because they produced fewer than 6 episodes – under these new rules. I’m inquiring to see if there’s clarity on that, or if that weird loophole will continue to exist.

If the nine-person panel is willing to rubber stamp any show that wants to compete against a perceived weaker field, then several of these changes won’t mean much. If they intend to be rigid about it, at least there will be more clarity about what belongs where, even if voters will continue to have to judge apples against oranges.

What does everybody else think? Are the new rules an improvement, or a step back? Are you excited about the idea that the whole membership can vote if they want to, or does the iffy quality of the nominations each year make that a less than enticing prospect?

Around The Web