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Emmys 2016: how TV shows choose what to submit for nominations

There’s far more strategy than meets the eye.

67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Press Room
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is pretty much a lock for Veep at this point, but this is a good picture!
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Despite how it might seem sometimes, Emmy nominations are not decided by random happenstance. They are the result of a long and complicated process involving For Your Consideration campaigns from studios and networks, one that is more far-reaching and calculated than you might expect.

To get a sense of just how far-reaching and calculated it is, you need look no further than Emmy nominations ballot, or essentially the nominations for the nominations. It’s an overwhelming document, featuring dozens upon dozens of actors and TV shows submitting themselves for consideration. When I tried to scroll to the bottom of just the writing category for the 2016 awards, my hand cramped up around page 70 of 96(?!).

But if you sift through the noise — a result of just about every show and actor on television throwing themselves into the fray — you’ll spot a few telling submissions that may not end in an actual nomination but are revealing nonetheless.

Here are four examples of the sometimes clever, sometimes delusional "strategies" that TV shows and actors use to try to secure an Emmy nod.

1) For Your Consideration: Jane the Virgin as a comedy

Jane the Virgin
The wonderful Gina Rodriguez as Jane.
The CW

If you watch Jane the Virgin, this makes sense. Most of the show is playful, between Anthony Mendez’s voiceover narration, the pithy pop culture jokes, and sporadic slapstick — but its episodes are an hour long.

As the line between genres has blurred, awards like the Emmys and Golden Globes have grappled with the question of what makes a show a comedy versus a drama. (And when you’re the Emmys and the Golden Globes, this is the kind of question that keeps you up at night.)

So in 2015, the Emmys announced a rules change that automatically splits shows into the comedy and drama categories based on episode length, designating half-hour shows as comedies and hour-long shows as dramas. Before, shows could submit in whichever category they liked (see: Fox’s hour-long musical series Glee competing as a comedy). Currently, shows have to petition the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to get out of their default category.

Orange Is the New Black is the best example of how this distinction works, since the show has notably been nominated in both categories in the past — and not by choice. Though it was nominated as a comedy in 2014, the 2015 rules changes forced the show to compete as a drama that year after the Academy denied its petition to remain in the comedy races.

And while calling Orange Is the New Black a drama is the right call — just because a show’s characters have a sense of humor doesn’t mean it’s a comedy! — it must’ve stung for Netflix, because it was far more likely for Orange Is the New Black to get wins in the comedy category than the crowded drama category, due to the sheer number of prestigious competitors in the latter.

2) For Your Consideration: The Real O’Neals Noah Galvin as Outstanding Supporting Actor

Jimmy (Matt Shively) watches on as Kenny (Noah Galvin) makes a statement.

If you’re not watching Fox’s The Real O’Neals ... well, first of all, you should be.

But while we’re here: It’s a family sitcom about Kenny (Galvin), a teen who comes out as gay to his dysfunctional and strictly Catholic family. Galvin is unequivocally playing the show’s starring role, but his agent and/or network decided to push him in the Supporting Actor category, which newcomer Galvin would have a better shot of cracking than Lead Actor, where actors with multiple nominations like Don Cheadle (House of Lies), Louis C.K. (Louie), and Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) tend to cluster. (Galvin’s chances of actually earning a nod effectively died the second he gave this incendiary interview to Vulture, but that doesn’t change the initial strategy.)

Even just casually browsing through the 2016 performer ballot — which spans a stunning 464 pages — it’s easy to see what a titanic task it is to narrow a year’s worth of television performances into categories of only six nominees each. So in both the comedy and drama categories, actors can submit as lead, supporting, or guest performers, and where they choose to compete (or where their networks and agents force them to compete) can be revealing.

Galvin probably doesn’t have a shot either way — and neither do his TV parents Martha Plimpton and Jay R. Ferguson, who both submitted, Hail Mary style, in the lead categories — since The Real O’Neals only recently started to gain traction after premiering in March. But you have to admire the effort anyway.

3) For Your Consideration: Exactly one (1) script each from Master of None, The Americans, Doctor Who, Mr. Robot, and many more shows

aziz ansari master of none
Aziz Ansari and Noel Wells in Master of None.

Emmy voters barely have time to process everything up for consideration, so no matter how many episodes a show submits, once those episodes’ titles are printed on the ballot, they all start to become checkboxes waiting for a spark of recognition.

Some shows will submit multiple episodes — or even an entire season’s worth of them, if you’re Ash vs. Evil Dead this year —to boost their presence within the ballot. But others know that vote splitting is a very real danger that can knock shows out of consideration if they’re not careful. Also: Writers can only submit one of their scripts per show (for up to four shows total), so if they’ve written multiple episodes for a single series that they consider Emmy-worthy, they have to choose wisely.

For FX’s critically acclaimed but low-rated spy thriller The Americans, for example, it’s a calculated move on the show’s part to only submit Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’s script for the season four finale in the Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series category. Preemptively narrowing the field so that voters only have one choice to consider makes an actual nomination more likely than if voters who already like The Americans had to pick from a few options.

Or, more simply: Only submitting one episode per show eliminates the possibility of splitting your own vote.

4) For Your Consideration: The Americans’ Annet Mahendru as Outstanding Supporting Guest Actress

The Americans
Annet Mahendru as Nina on The Americans.

To be clear: Annet Mahendru deserves 100 percent more recognition and approximately umpteen more awards than she’s received for her incredibly nuanced performance as the show’s Soviet triple agent, Nina. But the sad fact of the matter is that The Americans has had incredible difficulty earning nominations in any category, even with the likes of the more well-known Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys headlining the series, so the likelihood of Mahendru making a play in Supporting Actress even for —spoiler alert — her final season on The Americans would be close to zero.

So Mahendru’s team found an alternative solution. Even though she was listed as a series regular in season four, her character only appeared in four episodes, qualifying her as a "guest" actor. Unlike Supporting Actress, the Guest category doesn’t see a lot of repeat nominations for the same performers, due to its very nature of guest roles being more fleeting. That leaves more room for actors from less frequently nominated — but deserving — shows.

Capitalizing on the more varied competition in the Guest category is likely why the only Emmy acting nomination The Americans has ever received — despite stunning performances all around — belongs to Margo Martindale, who then went on to win the trophy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama in 2013.

Martindale’s experience offers a glimmer of hope to talented but underrecognized performers like Mahendru. In an ever-more-crowded television field, you’ve got to find the opportunities where you can get them.

The 2016 Emmy nominations will be announced on July 14, with the live telecast revealing the official winners on September 18.