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The Emmy nomination process is completely insane

The Emmys love Mad Men, but have yet to reward any of its actors with a prize.
The Emmys love Mad Men, but have yet to reward any of its actors with a prize.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every year, the Emmy nominations are announced, and every year, TV fans grouse about how the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has snubbed some of the best work being done on TV. Some of this is because there's just so much good TV right now that you can easily fill any one of these categories and still have lots of great shows left over. Some of it is because the Emmys get weirdly attached to certain shows and performances and nominate them over and over and over again. And some of it is because the extreme niche-ifying of TV means that some of the shows people online are obsessed with – like, say, Orphan Black ­– are only watched by a tiny handful of people in the live Nielsen ratings, the numbers the TV industry most cares about.

But the main reason why the nominations are the way they are is because the Emmys are guided by an arcane system of rules and guidelines that seem as if they were drawn up by a medieval guild of wizards. Seriously. If you ever take the time to read the Emmy bylaws, you'll wander into a confusing hedge maze of procedure and qualifications, most of which were written when TV was just ABC, CBS, NBC, and a few programs on the various networks that evolved into PBS. Now that TV has so many options — and some aren't even on TV proper — the Emmys haven't done much to change with the times. Indeed, there was some question last year if programs on Netflix would even be eligible for Emmys. (Clearly, they are now.)

So you'd like to win an Emmy? Then travel with us into the dungeon of traps the TV wizards hath lain for us.

How do I win an Emmy?

Well, first of all, you have to be on TV or a TV-like product. The Emmys had a clear delineation between stuff that was actually on TV versus stuff that was aired on the web up until last year, when Netflix successfully convinced the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences that something like House of Cards was much more like Breaking Bad than it was like other web series. This leaves a lot of grey area, but, basically, if you are on a national television network or a streaming service that makes shows that seem like TV (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Yahoo Screen, and Crackle, with some YouTube series arguably qualifying), then you are probably okay.

But you have to be nominated to win.

OK, smart guy. How do I get nominated?

Appeal to the Academy! Its membership is 15,000 strong, and most of those members are affiliated with various networks and other TV organisms. Its stated goal is to advance the cause of television, but you probably just know it from the Emmys. HBO has by far the most people in the Academy. HBO also consistently gets the most Emmy nominations. This is not a coincidence.

But the process of getting nominated is complicated, and it's part of the reason the nominations are always such a bizarre collection of happy surprises and weird inertia. The nominations process involves a lot of paperwork. But let's assume you're really good at that.

Here's a question for you: Are you on a comedy or a drama?

I get to decide this? The Emmys don't?

No, they don't! The governing board leaves almost all questions of qualification up to individual networks and performers. So when people grumble about how Orange Is the New Black isn't really a comedy, they have a point. (It's clearly a drama with comedic elements, instead of the reverse, at least in this writer's eyes. At least the Emmys and I can agree it deserves to be nominated for best series, whatever the category.) But they shouldn't be blaming the Emmys. They should be blaming Netflix, which decided that there was more upside in the comedy category than the drama category, where an Orange nomination might have pushed out fellow Netflix show House of Cards.

And you can switch back and forth, too! Shameless started out submitting as a drama (which it is), then saw limited success on that side of the line, so it started submitting on the comedy side this year, meaning it got William H. Macy a nomination in lead actor. (Macy is pretty much the least impressive element of Shameless, but people know his name and know he's a great actor. This is important. We'll get to it later.)


True Detective: Probably not a comedy.

Obviously, if you're True Detective and you try to submit as comedy, everybody will think you're ridiculous (and the governing board might step in at that point). But it takes a lot for anything like this to happen. This is, after all, the body that once nominated someone for 15 seconds of work.

Next question: Is your performance lead, supporting, or guest?

I get to decide that too!? Awesome! Well, I am on a sketch comedy series that has my name in the title, so lead, I guess.

Sorry. You're a supporting character on the show where you are the only credited cast member, most likely. Just like Emmy nominee Fred Armisen, one of two series regulars on his show Portlandia, was nominated for supporting actor in a comedy series, because the Emmys insist that all sketch performers — even those with shows named after them — are supporting players. Remember: medieval wizards.

Other than that, though, this is one place where the Emmys have essentially thrown up their hands and let out an exasperated groan. There used to be arcane regulations on the difference between a supporting player and a guest star, but now, actors are free to submit themselves as they want. It's how John Lithgow won guest actor for Dexter, while Margo Martindale won supporting actress for Justified, even though their characters fulfilled exactly the same function within the seasons they won for.

This allows for several nonsensical scenarios where, say, basically everybody on Orange Is the New Black submitted as a guest actress, rather than a supporting actress. But an old rule of thumb — if you're in the opening credits, you're probably supporting or lead — seems to still mostly hold sway. But even there, things get crazy. Elisabeth Moss has submitted as both lead and supporting for Mad Men, and has gotten into both categories. But, again, it's the actors and their networks making these calls, not the Emmys themselves.

All right. Are you on a regular series or a miniseries?

I thought you said these rules were arcane! So far, I'm just doing all the work.

Enjoy your freedom. It's about to disappear.

Anyway, yes, the recent rise of one-season anthology shows — first popping up with FX's American Horror Story and now popularized by things like True Detective and Fargo — has complicated this substantially. American Horror Story and Fargo both went miniseries, a category where FX has had some success, but True Detective went drama, because HBO thinks it has a shot at winning the more prestigious prize there, presumably. These shows that are sort of miniseries but also sort of drama series are only going to get more popular as the years go on, and ATAS will presumably make a ruling about which category they belong in sooner or later.

But maybe not! After all, Downton Abbey started out in the miniseries category, then decided it was a drama series. Shows like The Hour or Sherlock or Luther have all competed on this side, even though they are continuing series with the same characters across several seasons. This is because the Emmys aren't terribly well-constructed for considering shows from the British television model, particularly on the series level. Again, people would probably laugh at The Good Wife submitting here, so it doesn't happen. But for the most part, shows do whatever they want.

So how's this going to work?

Let's say I am a supporting actress on a sketch comedy miniseries. Get me nominated.

All right. Have you been nominated before?


Awesome. Did you subsequently fall out of the nominations lineup?

Yeah, but only last year.

I'm sorry, but you are probably not getting nominated this year. (This is what happened to The Good Wife.)

Though the Emmys have a tendency to keep nominating things they love over and over and over again, they also have a very slight bias toward the new. Shows that fall out of the nominations lineup (as Good Wife did) have murderously difficult times getting back into the lineup. And shows that are more than a couple of seasons old have a hard time breaking in if they've never been nominated. This is why FX would probably be wise to not put too much Emmy campaign muscle behind The Americans next year (its third season), even though it's one of TV's four or five best shows. Basically, if the Emmys don't pay attention to you right away, they probably aren't ever going to.


The Americans is one of TV's best shows. Not that the Emmys would have you know that.

There are exceptions, like Friday Night Lights, but those exceptions are defined far more by unique campaign strategies (e.g., Friday Night Lights was the first show to send an entire season to Emmy voters) than they are defined by the series' raw quality.

Now, did you air within the eligibility period?

I think so!

This is another thing that sometimes trips people up in understanding the Emmy process. Though the awards are given out at the end of the summer, they're rewarding the previous TV season, which means that the eligibility dates always run from June 1 of the year before through May 31 of the current year. That's how we're still celebrating Breaking Bad, which ended its run last September. It's also why, say, the excellent Sundance Channel drama Rectify isn't eligible, and why Orange cannot submit any episodes from its second season for consideration. Those episodes, which debuted June 6, won't be able to win Emmys until September of 2015, well over a year after they debuted.

There's one other wrinkle. If you've aired over half of your season within the eligibility period, then all episodes of that season count. So, for instance, Game of Thrones can submit its finale, even though it aired in June of 2014, and Louie could be off the air for over a year but not miss an Emmy eligibility period, because it managed to fit most of its fourth season into May 2014. This rule was actually invented so the Emmys could honor the Sopranos finale, which would have fallen into an awards-less wasteland without it.

Okay, so, what network are you on?

I am on an exciting new network that just launched with a lot of buzz!

Sorry. You're not getting nominated.

The dirty secret of the Emmy nomination process is that the people who vote on those nominations don't really watch a ton of television. They're too busy making it. This has changed a bit in the DVR/streaming era, but not substantially. Again: The Americans is one of the best shows on TV, but good luck getting the Emmys to acknowledge it.

Assuming you submitted all your paperwork correctly to compete in the supporting actress in a miniseries category (and we know you did), you're going to be placed on a lengthy ballot with everybody else who did. And if you don't have a ton of name recognition, or if you're not on a show Emmy voters are already watching (hence why it's so hard for previous nominees to fall out of categories), then you are probably screwed.

The exception is if you're on a network that the Emmys will pay attention to and/or a network (or production company) that has the cash to burn to mount a huge campaign on your behalf. (Or, perhaps, a network with a lot of voting members within the Academy.) Netflix has gotten so much attention because it makes good shows (okay, it makes Orange Is the New Black, and House of Cards is trash; come at me), but also because it can mount massive Emmy campaigns.

HBO has been associated with "quality TV" for so long that it can get Emmy voters to take seriously anything it puts on the air, even less acclaimed shows like The Newsroom. The broadcast networks increasingly struggle to get anyone to take their dramas seriously but do better with their safer, more anodyne comedies. PBS gets attention with its British people. AMC can get people to pay attention to Mad Men and Breaking Bad but nothing else. FX is good for Louie and its miniseries, but it can't get attention in the drama category, where it broadcasts many of TV's best shows. (Let's just mention The Americans again.) Showtime holds its own nicely. And that's pretty much it. All of the other networks are mostly confined to a handful of smaller categories.


Oh, Tatiana Maslany. Will you ever win?

And, even more, genre matters, as does the size of your audience. Tatiana Maslany was snubbed again for Orphan Black, despite the obvious technical superiority of her performance. She's won a number of critics awards for her work, and has been nominated for a Golden Globe. But she's on a science-fiction show on BBC America that hasn't ever been watched live by 1 million viewers. As far as the Emmys are concerned, she doesn't exist. Change any one of those things – like put Orphan Black on HBO ­– and she probably gets nominated. But with that trifecta, a nomination is likely impossible.

But you might have an out: do we know you well for your film work?

I am an Academy Award winner, but I cannot say which one.

Excellent. We might have something.

Even though mainstream TV can make a strong argument that it's better than mainstream film (whatever that means), the small screen still has a massive inferiority complex when it comes to its big screen cousins. So if you have ever had success in film, you have a big leg up. But that's not infallible. Robin Williams returned to TV this year, but his show got canceled, and thus, he wasn't nominated.

But let's imagine everything comes together. You submitted well, in a less competitive category. Your junior network nonetheless ran a strong campaign for you. And people knew your name because of your Oscar. So how did you do?

Aw, man, I came in seventh.

You might still be nominated! One thing people don't often know about the Emmys is that the nominee that just misses the list of six (in major categories) or five (in minor categories) can still be nominated, so long as its vote total is within 2 percent of the actual nominees. This comes up a surprising number of times with the Emmys, though not often in the major categories.

So, good news! Your votes were 1.2 percent out of sixth place, so you get to be nominated! Hooray!

Hooray! It's an honor just to be nominated! I can't possibly win!

Actually, you probably can. Because now, the process completely changes. And it immediately becomes much, much more fair — almost ridiculously so.

The first thing you need to do is pick the episode that best represents your work. Once you've done that, you submit it to the blue-ribbon panel, which will judge you against the other nominees. And if you chose your episode well enough, you stand a good shot at winning, because everything is essentially defined by that one, singular episode you chose. The process isn't perfect — and it tends to reward hammier work over more subtle work in the acting categories (hence the complete lack of Mad Men acting wins) — but it's a pretty great equalizer. That means someone like Bryan Cranston can become an Emmy magnet, while bigger stars, particularly in recent years, struggle.

I won an Emmy! What should I say in my speech?

Just make like last year's supporting actress in a comedy winner Merritt Wever. Best speech of all time.

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