Perhaps the most surprising thing about today’s Emmy nominations was how few surprises there actually were. In what arguably was the biggest campaign season ever for an Emmy race, the heftiest campaigns, most buzzed shows and more popular titles came through as expected including an Emmy-record five — count ’em — five new shows out seven nominees for Outstanding Drama Series. The fact that it took only one season for The Crown, Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, and This Is Us to crack the Television Academy’s most prestigious category bodes well for the future as Emmy hits 70 next year.
Fresh blood is what critics constantly complain is missing from this contest. The wave of rookie nominees proves that Emmy voters (about 22,000 members of the 24,000-strong organization are eligible to cast a ballot) are aware as they can be of at least some of what is happening in TV and are responding to it more quickly. Of course it helps that most of these shows already have been showered with precursor awards and nominations at other ceremonies to help identify their importance in the overwhelming stack of screeners we are sent. (I am one of those 22,000 Emmy voters as well as a former member of the Academy’s Board of Governors representing the writers branch).
The Academy acknowledges in the mind-spinning landscape that defines TV these days that it is impossible for members to see everything, and that is why they keep refining the voting process. This year it let voters pick as many shows as they want to nominate in each category; no caps. Academy President and COO Maury McIntyre told me at this morning’s announcement at the Saban Media Center that there is a reason for that. “Instead of trying to weigh which show is better,” he said, “it is now simply of what you watch, and we hope as a Television Academy member and professional you’re watching a lot, but of what you watch, what did you actually see that is Emmy-worthy? We find the members love it and don’t feel that constraint [of voting for five or 10]. Sometimes they only voted for three, sometimes they voted for 15. It is not like everyone voted for 50.”
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Of course this voting change really helps the more popular, campaigned and buzzed-about shows over more limited-audience programs like HBO’s criminally overlooked (again) The Leftovers, which was left out. McIntyre also addressed the enormous amount of campaigning that took place this year but said the Academy moves cautiously in trying to curtail that kind of activity. “We have reviewed and modified our campaign guidelines over the years, specifically as regard to screeners — where they used to be much more elaborate productions — so it is now just a box. We are encouraging other ways and digital platforms to get that material out there. But ultimately, when we look at a lot of the other campaigns we see we were a little flipped with the Oscars, where they are really strict once the nominations come out and how they campaign then. We don’t have any campaigning at that point, whereas we have all the campaigning going on earlier. But it’s obviously something we are going to continue to look at. We want to be sure the competition is fair, but at the same time we can’t really constrain people’s marketing practices. That’s just not our business, and I’m not even sure it’s legal,” he added, perhaps signaling we will be seeing more of the same in years to come as long as the money keeps flowing in these races.
New Academy Chairman Hayma Washington told me he was very pleased with what his fellow members did this morning but was fairly nonplussed by the increased campaigns. “All I can be responsible for is our [‘For Your Consideration’ events], and everyone we come in contact with there runs it by the rules,” he said. “What people do outside of the FYCs, I can’t say.” He also was pleased that this was a better year in terms of a showing by broadcast networks, particularly NBC, which saw its venerable Saturday Night Live tied for the lead among programs, with a whopping 22 nominations, as well as freshman drama This Is Us from 20th TV breaking out with 11. “We have five [new] shows out of the seven [drama series nominees]. They are across all the platforms. It just goes to show that whether it is campaigned or whatever, quality shows are going to be watched.”
That is certainly what happened in the case of the aforementioned This Is Us, which became the first broadcast network show to break into the Drama Series category in six years (The Good Wife was the last one, in 2011). That definitely was one of the big stories of the morning, though the ensemble drama’s 11 nominations were heavily actor-driven and the series failed to land a single nom for Directing or Writing. Those categories were consumed with cable and streamer entries, not necessarily a good sign for an eventual victory in the Drama Series category, where a win would really shake things up.
Largely because of This Is Us, NBC was able to increase its overall total this year to 64 nominations, up from 41 last year, but more than half of that haul came from SNL and This Is Us — along with 10 for The Voice — whereas upstart streamer Netflix increased its 2016 total of 54 noms to a stunning 91 this time around, thanks to a wide variety of shows and a huge campaign effort that included renting out a 29,000-square-foot office space in Beverly Hills for nightly campaign events, separate from the TV Academy’s sanctioned FYC events. It clearly was a successful move for Netflix, which now is nipping at the heels of perennial leader HBO, which nabbed 111 nominations this year, up from 94 in 2016. Amazon, on the other hand, also ran a big campaign and rented out the Hollywood Athletic Club for a couple of weeks of nightly events, but it only matched the same total of 16 noms that it got last year and also saw its Transparent shut out of the Comedy Series race for the first time.
The other broadcast nets actually decreased their numbers from last year, so NBC’s success might just be a little ripple, rather than a harbinger of a big-time return of the Big 4 to Emmy glory. ABC did retain Comedy Series nominations for its stalwarts, five-time winner Modern Family and its Wednesday night stablemate Black-ish. That category, which is dominated by HBO’s Veep (17 nominations today), only had one new entry from the usual suspects that were nominated last year: That was, as expected, FX’s Atlanta, which certainly was helped by its Golden Globe and Guild wins in getting noticed and making the cut, likely to Transparent’s detriment.
By the way, congratulations to Ryan Murphy, who received five personal nominations today for Feud and became the first person ever to be nominated for an Emmy in writing and directing categories for a show about another awards show. His Episode 5 of FX’s Feud, titled “The Oscars of 1963,” was a brilliantly executed look at the Academy Awards where Whatever Happened to Baby Jane co-stars Joan Crawford and Bette Davis memorably faced off. And as for this year’s Oscars, the show which became most famous for an envelope snafu that had presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway naming the wrong Best Picture winner, it was nominated for six Emmys including Outstanding Special Class Program.
Overall I have to say that, thanks to the influx of excellent new drama series and some strong limited series including Feud and Big Little Lies, this was a pretty satisfying list the Academy come up with. But it still favors those with deep pockets and elaborate campaigns. That is unlikely to change in Emmy seasons to come.
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