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The Emmy rule switch that changed everything

One minor adjustment has led to an awards show dominated by sweeps and buzz

The Emmys have changed their rules — and Game of Thrones seems to have benefited.
The Emmys have changed their rules — and Game of Thrones seems to have benefited.
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.

For casual TV fans, Game of Thrones' massive Emmy sweep in 2015 — it won 12 prizes, the most for any show in a single season — likely seemed as if it were a long time in coming. After all, the show is one of TV's biggest, and the Emmys' reluctance to embrace it had seemed weird at best and biased against fantasy shows at worst. (After the Creative Arts Emmys — which were held earlier this month and reward below-the-line technicians — Game of Thrones season six has already won nine trophies, putting it well on its way to besting its record-breaking haul for season five.)

Similarly, Jon Hamm winning last year for Mad Men's final season after eight previous nominations probably seemed to most TV fans like sweet awards justice after years of disappointment.

But for close observers of the Emmys, these wins were surprising, to say the least. The Emmys have always been resistant to sweeps by particular programs, and people rarely win awards solely because of industry name recognition or nostalgia. (However, getting nominated solely because of name recognition happens all the time.)

There's a good reason for all of this. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences rolled out changes to the Emmys' voting process prior to the 2015 Emmys, and they proved to have a far greater impact than expected.

In short, the way the Emmys conducted the voting process in the past was designed to force voters to consider the work in question. That's not really the case anymore, and it's led to prizes being won more for buzz than anything else.

How the Emmys used to conduct voting

59th Annual Emmy Awards - Show

James Spader was a frequent beneficiary of the "tapes" system when he was on Boston Legal, as he was able to submit ultra-dramatic, huge performances every year.

Vince Bucci/Getty Images

Everyone who is nominated for an Emmy has to submit an example of his or her work, usually a single episode carefully chosen to display said work at its best. In some categories (like the writing and directing categories), this happens before the nominations are announced; in others (particularly the acting categories), it happens after the announcement. In the series categories, shows submit six episodes (and used to submit eight).

These submissions are colloquially referred to as "tapes," from when they were mailed out on actual, physical tapes, though they're now mostly stored online. (You can read a list of what was submitted for consideration at this year's awards thanks to Goldderby.) If you're a voter, you're expected to watch all of the submitted tapes, then rank all of the nominees in a category from most to least favorite. Theoretically, then, this gives the voters an opportunity to watch even shows they don't have exposure to in an "apples to apples" environment.

Up until 2015, the tapes were sent to what were called "blue-ribbon panels," smaller groups of voters within the larger body who were required to watch all of the tapes. Any Emmy voter could serve on up to four panels — two for programs, and two related to their particular discipline (acting, writing, etc.). But because watching all of the tapes was so time-consuming, the members of the blue-ribbon panels tended to self-select to the most artistically conservative, oldest members of the academy. (For more on this, read the Hollywood Reporter's Scott Feinberg.)

This process, in particular, has been blamed for everything from the same people winning Emmys year after year after year to the awards' slowness to recognize groundbreaking programs like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. And so, in 2015, the academy junked a key portion of it.

How Emmy voters vote now

2015 Creative Arts Emmy Awards - Governors Ball

Margo Martindale attends the 2015 Creative Arts Emmy Awards Governors Ball. She won the Emmy for Guest Actress in a Drama Series.

Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Now all members of a specific branch of the academy — acting, writing, editing, etc. — are allowed to vote on the awards in that particular branch, instead of just a few dozen voters on a blue-ribbon panel. ATAS has, in total, more than 19,000 members (though not all members are in every branch), which means the shift has been from a very selective process to a very, very open one.

There's one major similarity, however. Voters are still required to watch all of the submitted tapes in any category (save for Comedy and Drama Series, where they're not required to watch anything to vote). In theory, the academy has kept its old system, just expanded it to hopefully allow for more populist choices.

However, there's no immediate indication of how the academy keeps track of who's watched what. Screeners are available online — and presumably could be tracked to individual accounts to suggest who should be able to vote on which awards — but this system would be easy enough to get around for even the technically inept. (Simply leave that screener running while you're doing something else.) And there's no indication the academy is doing even that.

Thus, up until last year, no one was quite sure how much of an effect this would have, but the results, as suggested, make it seem as if the new process will have pronounced repercussions on the awards going forward.

The rise of the Emmy sweep?

66th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Press Room

Modern Family has been a frequent beneficiary of the Emmys' aversion to change.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

One of the best — and worst — things about the Emmys is how unaffected they seem to be by buzz.

Steve Carell's departure from The Office resulted in oceans of positive press and tributes, but the Emmys didn't care, giving yet another award to The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons and leaving Carell empty-handed. Game of Thrones has been one of TV's biggest shows, but until 2015, it struggled to break out of the technical categories. And Netflix has won but three major awards since it started being Emmy-eligible — a directing prize for House of Cards and two acting prizes for Orange Is the New Black's Uzo Aduba.

The tapes system, by and large, is thought to be responsible for this. Where the Golden Globes vacillate wildly between the handful of shows that get the most buzz in the media, the Emmys are staid, slow to change, and very traditional in their tastes. They like what they like. But this also means they don't go in for fads that look embarrassing later on, for the most part. They might over-reward Modern Family, but they always remained a little skeptical of Glee.

The new system tosses all of that out the window. That could lead to some happy occurrences — like Hamm's win for Mad Men — but it could also lead to voters simply checking off the names of shows they're more familiar with in category after category, as happens at the Oscars (another award show where the system to police whether voters have seen every film is spotty/nonexistent).

We'll know more after the main awards, but if Game of Thrones tops its own record Sunday night, the primary reason will likely boil down to those voting bylaws nobody ever reads.