The Emmys may be similar to the Oscars in the method by which most of the nominees are chosen, but TV’s top honors pick their winners in a very different way.
When they kicked off in 1949, the Emmys took a page from the Academy Awards and winners were decided by the whole of the TV academy. However, just as the film studios did with the Oscars, TV networks began using bloc voting to ensure wins for their leading shows and performers.
After writer-producer Rod Serling became president of the TV academy in 1965, he pushed through an overhaul of the awards, arguing “it’s time we became not just an industry but an art form.” He created peer group panels which gathered to watch selected episodes from the nominees and vote on the winners.
While Serling’s innovation of area awards lasted just one year for the major categories, his changes to the voting have remained in place.
This system was seen as ensuring that the Emmys went to the best of the best. Indeed, less than a month after calling the 1971 Academy Awards “a two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” and refusing to accept his Best Actor Oscar for “Patton,” George C. Scott won an Emmy for “The Price.” Although not there in person, he said he was happy to accept this award as “it was bestowed by a panel of experts.”
At the end of the last century, the TV academy took advantage of advancements in technology to expand the number of members who took part in the process. Rather than require voters to go to a hotel to see the submissions, they would be able to view the tapes at home.
At first, this change was seen as a success. When Sela Ward (“Once and Again”) won Best Drama Actress in 2000 over “The Sopranos” duo Lorraine Bracco and Edie Falco as well as Amy Brenneman (“Judging Amy”) and Julianna Margulies (“ER”), her surprise victory was hailed as proof that the voters had watched the tapes.
However, since then there have been signs that the tapes have not have been the sole determinants of the outcomes of all races. While judging is subjective such that everyone will not agree with all the winners, there have been occasions when the experts all agreed on who should win and voters voiced a different collective opinion.
In 2001, James Gandolfini and Edie Falco prevailed in the lead drama acting races for “The Sopranos” over a pair of the most memorable performances by perennial rival nominees. Gandolfini triumphed over “The West Wing” star Martin Sheen who sumbitted “Two Cathedrals,” the episode in which President Bartlet, grieving over Mrs. Landingham’s death, struggles with whether or not to seek re-election. And Falco edged out co-star Lorraine Bracco who entered the powerful “Employee of the Month,” in which her character was sexually assaulted.
The following year brought even bigger jawdroppers in the same categories when Michael Chiklis won for the pilot of “The Shield” and Allison Janney prevailed with “The West Wing” episode “The Women of Qumar.” Chiklis eged out “Six Feet Under” co-stars Michael C. Hall and Peter Krause as well as Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland (“24”). Janney, who had taken the supporting award twice before jumping up to lead, won over frontrunner Jennifer Garner (“Alias”) who had submitted the pilot of her spy thriller. While that episode showcased Garner, Janney was barely featured in hers save for one scene in which she delivers an impassioned speech.
In 2005, Felicity Huffman won Best Comedy Actress over her “Desperate Housewives” co-stars Marcia Cross and Teri Hatcher as well as Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) and Jane Kaczmarek (“Malcolm in the Middle”). Huffman submitted the pilot which did her no favors and was thought to be out of the race while Cross chose “Running to Stand Still” and Hatcher “Move On.” So did Huffman win because she had a good scene on the episode Cross submitted or was it because she was the most respected actress on the hottest show on television at the time?
Katherine Heigl’s shock win in 2007 for her supporting role in the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” was all the more confusing as she hadn’t even been nominated the previous season when she had featured prominently in the Denny Duquette storyline. Perhaps her nomination and subsequent win were due to her outspoken defense of co-star T.R. Knight after Isaiah Washington made disparaging remarks.
In 2011, Melissa McCarthy (“Mike & Molly”) pulled off an upset in the lead comedy category over Falco (“Nurse Jackie”), Tina Fey (“30 Rock”), Laura Linney (“The Big C”), Martha Plimpton (“Raising Hope”) and Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”). While her episode submission was regarded by experts as the weakeast of the bunch, McCarthy was in the spotlight for her scene-stealing performance in the smash hit movie “Bridesmaids.”