“Did we surprise you?” Television Academy chairman and CEO Bruce Rosenblum asked me just moments after he joined Uzo Aduba and Cat Deeley at the Pacific Design Center in announcing top categories for the 67th annual Emmy Award nominations. Well, yes and no, Bruce. Was I surprised to see such familiar repeat contenders as Downton Abbey, Game Of Thrones (leading with 24 nominations), Homeland, House Of Cards, Mad Men, Modern Family, Veep and Louie? No. But yes, I was a bit stunned to see the high levels of freshness and diversity represented in many of the other nominees including first-year entries like Transparent, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Better Call Saul. Nice going, Academy. And I was excited to see among acting nominees the inclusion of new blood Bob Odenkirk, Liev Schreiber and Bloodline’s Kyle Chandler (though a past winner in this category for Friday Night Lights) in Drama Series Lead Actor, and Viola Davis, Tatiana Maslany (finally!) and Empire’s Taraji P. Henson adding real diversity to the Lead Actress category.
But the exclusion of Fox’s first-season juggernaut Empire in just about every other category except costumes (Emmy voters liked the duds, guys) was what had people talking this morning. I expected that enormously popular series, which increased its audience every single week, to be a real contender. And I know Fox, which is host network for the September 20th Emmys this year, expected more love than they got here. At the very least a nomination for lead actor Terrence Howard would have been in order. The strong showing for diversity on TV sadly did not extend in the kind of meaningful way it might have in the case of this show. Rosenblum was diplomatic about the missing biggie when I asked if he was taken aback by the fact it wasn’t in there.
“Every year you are surprised there are one, two or three shows that you are surprised don’t get as many nominations as you would think, and Empire is in that category this year,” he said. “I have been asked about it a lot. On the other hand this year there was just so much great content for our members to decide amongst,” he added, saying that he actually looks at its exclusion as a “good thing” in one respect: “When you nominate seven shows and people bring up four or five other shows that should be on the list, that just means there is a lot of great work being done by our members and that is something we should be proud of.”
Empire wasn’t alone though among TV fan favorites in making the snub list as perennial nominee The Big Bang Theory missed out on a Comedy Series nod for the first time in several years as well as one for frequent winner Jim Parsons (it did receive six other nods). And once again, despite an aggressive campaign on the part of AMC, their ratings behemoth The Walking Dead was named only in four below-the-line contests and ignored in every other major category as usual. When it comes to zombies, no matter how much critical acclaim, Emmy voters tend to be just as snobbish as Oscar voters for genres like this one is in.
I asked this year’s Primetime Emmys producer Don Mischer about the exclusions of some of the more massively popular shows, particularly Empire. Of course from his point of view having ratings magnets like that would likely mean his show itself would also benefit with more viewer interest. “I don’t know what to say about that because that is simply the way people in this Academy vote. And they vote for what they feel is right and it is always going to happen that something will be omitted. I am sure there are going to be differences of opinion about that that are going to be running through our whole industry today and tomorrow, ” he said, while adding that because of the way they are structuring the show this year — again dividing it into sections of Comedy, Drama, Variety, Reality, etc. — it will allow the exploration of the “big landscape” of TV where they can include the impact of popular shows like Empire “because, without question, Empire was a major television story this year.”
Rosenblum emphasizes that the TV Academy goes for their definition of quality when it comes to what does get nominated — or what doesn’t. “Look at the seven dramas and tell me which of those seven nominees you would step away and put Empire instead, not that Empire isn’t a terrific show — and by the way if it had been nominated I would say the same thing to you about somebody complaining about the other one. We only have seven slots and we have 20,000 members who vote and these are the seven that they came up with. We’re not the People’s Choice Awards. We are recognizing creative excellence. For decades the most popular show on television doesn’t always get a nomination because we are not the People’s Choice Awards. It’s a vote of your peers and the men and women who make these television shows, and in their judgement these were the seven best dramas and the seven best comedies.”
He added that he is thrilled that the Academy’s initiatives to increase membership and voting participation has resulted in a much more diverse Academy and that in turn has resulted in a much more diverse list of nominees than has been seen in many seasons, even without Empire. This list is a marked difference between the very white Oscar nominations this year and what Emmy voters have to choose from on television. Even the famously Oscar-snubbed Selma star David Oyelowo is an Emmy nominee for Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for HBO’s Nightengale. In fact there is a record 18 African American acting nominees in this year’s lineup.
Rosenblum says the number of nominations for the broadcast networks are up this year but out of the 14 shows nominated for Best Comedy Series and Drama Series only two (comedies Modern Family and the exiting Parks And Recreation) are from either ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox. The rest are PBS (for Downton Abbey), cable or streaming networks. In fact if you combine the nominations for upstarts Netflix and Amazon, their 46 nominations oustrip the number each of the broadcast Big Four got on their own.
“It’s not a a zero-sum game,” said Rosenblum. “I think Netflix is great for our business and Amazon is great for our business, and I think Hulu is great for our business. Anything that enables our members to have more employment is a good thing and we had 40% more drama submissions this year. That means there is a lot of great work being done and whether it is being done on Amazon, Netflix or Hulu or ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox that’s employment for our members. Netflix is raising the bar from a quality standpoint, much like HBO (which nabbed a leading 126 noms this year) a couple of decades ago, and if that is encouraging and enticing all of the suppliers of content to extend themselves and do a higher level of work , that is a good thing for our business. I wouldn’t say they are taking over the business. I would say the business is expanding. They are an important buyer of content. Clearly they are doing great creative work and it is being recognized by our members but ABC , NBC, CBS and Fox are doing great creative work too as is TNT, USA and SYFY as is HBO, Showtime and Starz. It’s a wealth of riches that we have and our members really are executing at the highest levels.”
Rosenblum said it all diplomatically, singling out just about every network except The Tennis Channel. The irony though is that the Emmys are carried on a rotating wheel by the Big Four networks, but it is all these other outlets that stand the most to gain from the exposure. More than ever the Television Academy’s choices reflect the ever-changing and fast-paced change of the way the business of television works today.
This overall should be a very interesting Emmy Awards as the final voting represents the end of the blue-ribbon panel system where only a comparatively small number of volunteer voters picked the actual winners. Now because of a rule change approved by the Board of Governors in February every one of the some 18,500 eligible voters who participated in the nominating process can now vote in all those same categories for the winners. And in the Comedy and Drama Series categories you no longer have to sign an affidavit proving you have even seen all the entries; it is on the honor system. Both Academy COO Maury McIntyre and Rosenblum told me this morning that they are thrilled that the number of voters, thanks to the switch to online balloting, has again increased by double digits. And now the participation for the final vote is going to increase to levels never even approached before. This could really shake things up and produce major surprises.
“That was the intent. Well, actually the intent wasn’t to shake up the Emmys. The intent was to have a more reflective voice of our membership and to make sure as many voices were heard in which program and which individual achievement gets awarded at the Creative Arts and the Primetime show. Blue-ribbon panels were an important step years and years ago but may have outlived their usefulness, and with technology now we can expand the number of voices who have input into the decision of who walks away with the trophy to a broader base. That’s a good thing. Our Academy thinks that should allow for a diversity of voices and ideally more members participating,” he said.
It’s indeed a new day for the Academy and the Emmys. And for those who made the cut this morning, it’s also a very good day.