Is This Any Way To Judge Emmy Awards?

Ray Richmond is contributing to Deadline’s 2010 Emmy coverage:

The Primetime Emmy screeners and ballots for at-home judging are in the mail. It happens that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is one of the last organizations in the land to depend wholeheartedly on the U.S. Postal Service in the Internet Age. The first of two mailings have been going out this week from the Academy offices in North Hollywood to those judging the creative arts (or technical) categories for this year’s Emmys. Next week, those assessing the categories being announced during the August 29th telecast on NBC receive their packages that include DVD nominee discs and a Scan-Tron voting sheet for marking choices. Yes, the TV Academy is still utilizing the same technology that we all used in high school and college to take multiple choice tests.

So here’s a question that needs to be asked: Is the Emmy judging process itself as antiquated as the Academy distribution and technological procedures?

Both to its credit and detriment, the TV Academy has kept the Emmys in a near-constant state of retooling to supposedly remain relevant. But, clearly, that doesn’t always work. Much of the Academy’s futzing is done in the interest of keeping the telecast fresh and the competition open. But for a lot of the categories, that hasn’t much mattered — as we’ve seen with the seven consecutive wins of both The Amazing Race and The Daily Show and the three in a row for 30 Rock in the Outstanding Comedy Series lineup. Worse is that freshman shows don’t get the Emmy attention of senior (aka stale) shows. That could finally change this year after strong showings in the Emmy nominations for newcomers Glee, Modern Family, and The Good Wife as well as Nurse Jackie in its first year of eligibility.

Not every member of ATAS votes on the Emmys, or even is eligible to. Members first have to volunteer and then pass what John Leverence, the TV Academy’s esteemed SVP of awards, calls a “rigorous” vetting process. This involves making sure there are no conflicts of interest – say, a VP at Showtime wanting to serve on a comedy series panel but Nurse Jackie is a nominee. Members need to sign an affidavit pledging they have no conflicts and also promising they will watch all of the nominees in their judging categories.

Of course, the term “panel” in this instance is something of a misnomer. Since 2000, roughly 95% of the Emmy viewing and judging moved to members’ homes. Before that, the process involved weekends locked in a hotel room with a bunch of fellow judges and VHS tapes. Participation tripled overnight when the Academy allowed voters to watch in the comfort of their own living rooms. And the voting pool also grew significantly younger.

Yet that was hardly the end of the TV Academy’s predicaments with the voting process. Things actually bottomed-out in 2006 after the Academy braintrust had the bright idea to have “secret panels” screen sample episodes of every TV series that landed in the Top 15 of a popular vote, and performers in the Top 10. Suddenly, deserving shows or actors missed out. Lost went from outstanding drama winner the year before to not nominated at all in 2006, the same year James Gandolfini and Edie Falco weren’t nominated for The Sopranos. And there was that year’s Ellen Burstyn fiasco: she was nominated as supporting actress for a 14-second performance in HBO’s Mrs. Harris. It raised suspicions that voters weren’t watching the submissions at all and were merely voting buzz and big names. It’s a charge that hasn’t entirely disappeared.

The uproar in the wake of the 2006 disaster was loud and insistent, and the Academy freaked. For 2007, its revamped process diminished the clout of the judging panels by basing nominations on a new 50-50 mix of judges’ scores and popular vote. It also decreed that, to avoid a repeat of the Burstyn mess, performers now had to appear in at least 5% of a project’s total. A final and kinda bizarre change that year mandated that contenders for nomination submit essays of 250 words or less explaining the context of the sample episode submission. To help judges grasp the intricacies of Lost, say.

Now it’s 2010, and most of the hyperventilating and uber-indignation have ceased over the Emmy process. Academy members are now limited in their participation on program panels to no more than 2 consecutive years judging the same series category before they’re mandated to take a year off.

But most other things remain the same. Every voting member can vote on the final at-home panels in the biggest series categories (comedy, drama, variety, nonfiction, reality) but it’s only peer-to-peer in the individual achievement categories (writers voting for writers, directors for directors, performers for performers, etc).

One thing: I wasn’t able to glean any names of people who have served on voting panels because they’ve actually submitted a written oath that they won’t disclose it, and for me to name names could land them in hot water. It would actually be a legal matter, I’m assured by a few whom I asked.

And another: since the entirety of judging is now going on behind closed doors at home, whether a voter actually watches all or any of the nominated shows in the category is monitored only by the honor system. The sad fact is that, when you’re asking busy people to take hours and even days out of their lives with only an ethical duty hanging over their head, shortcuts may be taken.

So is all this a fair way to measure the finest achievement in television? You be the judge.

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