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7 Emmys rules and quirks that explain the 2015 nominations

Despite airing outside of the eligibility period, Game of Thrones' most recent finale was Emmy-eligible through a quirk of the rules.
Despite airing outside of the eligibility period, Game of Thrones' most recent finale was Emmy-eligible through a quirk of the rules.
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.

To the uninitiated, the Emmy nominations can look like a confusing series of weird choices. What makes one show a comedy and another a drama? What determines whether someone is a supporting actor or a guest? And why does American Horror Story keep ending up in the running for best miniseries?

The answer used to be that the Emmys were a wacky free-for-all, where actors and shows generally submitted themselves however they best saw fit. But in early 2015, after a 2014 Emmy season that featured several controversies over category delineations, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences added several new rules to clarify who could compete in which races — rules that made many things clearer and a few things much less so.

Here, then, are the seven most important things you need to know about how the Emmy nominations work.

1) Half-hour shows are comedies, and hour-long shows are dramas — unless you file an appeal

Alex and Piper in Orange Is the New Black.


Orange Is the New Black was a comedy for its first season, but the Emmys deemed it a drama for season two. (Netflix)

Why is Amazon's low-key dramedy Transparent a comedy, while Orange Is the New Black is a drama? The answer mostly comes down to running time.

Until this year, it was a show's prerogative to identify itself as a comedy or a drama. There was no specific governing board making those calls, which led to just about any fairly dramatic show with a handful of comedic elements competing in the comedy categories, where they were often quite successful. In 2014, the most notable beneficiary of this policy was Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, a series that mixed several great laughs into what was essentially a women's prison drama and, thus, competed in the comedy categories.

When it made its rules changes, the Academy decreed that it would categorize all TV programming as follows: Shows that fill a half-hour time slot would automatically be considered comedies, and those that fill an hour-long time slot would automatically be dramas.

For many series, that makes sense, as there haven't been many genuine half-hour dramas in TV history. (Arguably, the most recent one is HBO's 2000s psychiatry drama In Treatment, which ended in 2010) And while there are several famous hour-long shows with comedic elements (like, say, Orange Is the New Black or Glee), there are never so many on the air at a given time that the default classifications don't work on some level.

However, this is an incredibly limiting way to parse an increasingly varied TV landscape. The Academy recognizes this, so it allows individual shows to appeal to change their default classification. A handful of hour-long shows did just that in 2015, with no half-hour shows doing so.

The Academy ultimately decided that three of those hour-long shows — Glee, Jane the Virgin, and Shameless — could compete in the 2015 Emmys as comedies, while Orange Is the New Black must compete as a drama. But where the more outwardly silly Glee and Jane made more immediate sense as comedies, it's not clear why Shameless is a comedy and Orange Is the New Black is a drama, given that both shows boast fairly equal divides of both genres. (For what it's worth, Orange Is the New Black did score a nomination in the Best Drama category, but Shameless did not make the cut for Best Comedy.) The new system is an improvement on the old one, but it still needs work.

2) Actors decide whether they belong in the lead or supporting categories — but not in the guest star categories

Modern Family

The Modern Family actors always submit themselves in the supporting categories. (ABC)

Submitting for the guest acting categories used to be an easy way for an actor to hack the Emmy system. John Lithgow, for instance, won the guest-acting Emmy for his performance in the fourth season of Dexter, in which he appeared in every episode. Similarly, Mad Men's Robert Morse and Shameless's Joan Cusack were frequent guest nominees for their respective shows, despite effectively being series regulars.

The Emmys put a stop to this by pronouncing that actors can only compete in the guest categories if they appear in fewer than half of a season's episodes. Like the comedy vs. drama rule change, this one hit Orange Is the New Black hardest of all, by forcing almost all of its cast members into the supporting actor category. At the 2014 Emmys, Orange Is the New Black had three contenders in the Guest Actress category; this year, only Laura Prepon — who appeared in just four of 13 episodes in season two, the season in the running for the 2015 awards — was eligible to submit there. Lorraine Toussaint, who played a one-season villain on the show, is the actor who's most obviously affected. She almost certainly would have submitted as a guest actress under the old rules but was forced to submit as a supporting actress under the new ones.

In contrast, Morse and Cusack submitted as guest performers again, simply because they didn't appear in that many episodes of their respective shows' most recent seasons. (Cusack did end up earning a nomination, but Morse did not.)

In the two other acting categories, however, actors decide whether to label themselves as lead actors or supporting actors. There are no specific guidelines for this. The entire adult cast of Modern Family, for example, submits in the supporting categories every year, while Rob Lowe is famous for submitting as a lead actor on both The West Wing and Parks and Recreation when his roles on both series might have seemed to be more of a supporting nature.

3) Actors and shows submit themselves for consideration

Because television is such a huge, varied medium, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences doesn't release a list of Emmy-eligible series, as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does for the eligible Oscar movies. That means if you want to be considered for an Emmy, you're in for a lot of paperwork. And some candidates who don't really think they have a chance at a nomination just don't submit.'s Cory Barker has compiled a great list of candidates who opted not to even try for a spot on this year's ballot, and if you want to see the list of everyone who did submit themselves, you can check it out here.

4) A "limited series" is just a new word for miniseries ... sort of

True Detective HBO

True Detective was in the drama series category for its first season. It will no longer be able to do that in future seasons. (HBO)

As part of its rule changes, the Academy decided to change the longstanding term of "miniseries" to "limited series" in the Emmys' category names. This reflects a growing industry trend toward shows that tell new stories with new characters in every new season, and it reflects another controversy from the 2014 Emmy cycle.

In 2014, HBO's True Detective decided to compete as a drama, rather than as a miniseries. And while that move ultimately yielded poor results (of all the major awards, the show won only the trophy for directing), it prompted lots of discussion as to why True Detective was a drama series while FX's American Horror Story and Fargo were miniseries.

Ultimately, the Academy decided that all shows whose characters don't appear across multiple seasons should compete in the "limited series" category, meaning True Detective would have been in this category this year, had it been eligible. Since both True Detective and Fargo did not air new episodes during the eligibility period for the 2014-'15 TV season, that means the full effect of this change won't be seen until the 2016 Emmys.

5) There's still one big gray area for the Emmys to clarify


With just three episodes per season, Sherlock is trapped in the limited series category by default. (PBS)

This isn't too big of a deal right now, but the Emmy rules classify a TV "series" as a program that airs at least six episodes within a single TV season. That means almost every show on television qualifies, but there are a few that fall just outside that designation. For instance, PBS's Sherlock has seasons of just three episodes, despite featuring continuing characters and storylines, and must therefore compete in the limited series category by default.

As American networks import more British series, which usually have shorter episode orders, and as more streaming services embrace programming that falls outside the conventional TV model (as with Netflix's new Residue, which had a three-episode first season), this gray area will only continue to expand. The Emmys will have to redefine it eventually.

6) The Emmy eligibility period roughly mirrors the TV season

Penny Dreadful

Despite debuting all the way back in May 2014, Penny Dreadful wasn't eligible for the Emmys until this year. (Showtime)

Why isn't True Detective's second season eligible for the 2015 Emmys? Because the eligibility calendar follows the traditional TV season calendar, outdated as it is. To be eligible for the 2015 Emmys, a show has to have aired at least half of its season between June 1, 2014, and May 31, 2015. That means Orange Is the New Black's 2015 nominations will be based on its second season, which launched in June 2014, and not its third season, which launched in June 2015.

That "half of its season" qualifier is important, too. It means that a show like Game of Thrones — which aired all but two of its season five episodes within the eligibility period for the 2015 Emmys — was allowed to submit the two additional episodes for awards consideration.

The Emmys' eligibility rule usually works in the favor of shows that premiere later in the season, in March or April, and continue to air into June. However, it can work in the other direction. The first season of Showtime's Penny Dreadful, for instance, aired only three episodes in May 2014, so it was not eligible to compete in the 2014 Emmys. Instead, those three episodes were lumped into its bid for the 2015 Emmys.

7) The Emmy universe is still largely confined to a handful of networks and genres

orphan black

Tatiana Maslany, who plays multiple roles in Orphan Black, was a long shot for an Emmy nomination, despite the technical difficulties of her performance. Her 2015 nod was a pleasant surprise. (BBC America)

The dirty secret of the Emmy nomination process is that the people who vote on the nominations don't really watch a ton of television. Indeed, they're too busy making it. This has changed a bit in the era of DVR viewing and streaming, but not substantially. Actors who don't have a ton of name recognition — or who aren't on shows that Emmy voters are already watching — are often out of luck. That's why so many of the same shows and actors keep getting nominated, year after year, with few changes to the ballot.

The exceptions? Shows that air on networks the Emmys always pay attention to and/or shows whose networks (or production companies) have cash to burn on huge "for your consideration" marketing efforts. HBO in particular has been associated with "quality TV" for so long that it can get Emmy voters to seriously assess pretty much anything it puts on the air. And the reason Netflix has made such a huge splash, even as a young network, is that it can afford to mount big ad campaigns.

Genre also matters, as does audience size. Until her 2015 nomination for Lead Actress in a Drama, Orphan Black actress Tatiana Maslany had been repeatedly snubbed, despite the obvious technical superiority of her performance. She'd won a number of critics awards for her work, and she'd been nominated for a Golden Globe. But Orphan Black is a science fiction show on BBC America that hasn't ever drawn 1 million live viewers; that's why Maslany's nomination is so (pleasantly!) surprising. If you were to swap out any one of those variables — by putting Orphan Black on HBO, for instance ­— her nod would've been much more of a given.

If your favorite performer or show was denied a spot on the 2015 Emmy ballot, the most likely reason is that they fell outside the awards' go-to nominee sources. It's just hard to get Emmy voters to pay attention to stuff outside their wheelhouse, even though stuff outside their wheelhouse constitutes much of what makes TV so great right now.