Emmy post mortem: Did rule changes make or break the awards?

For this year’s Emmys, we saw a whole crop of new rules and procedures brought in by the TV academy. These ranged from the creation of a Best Variety Sketch category to reclassifying “Orange is the new Black” as a drama. However, the changes with the broadest impact had to do with voting procedure.

In past years, DVDs of episodes chosen by nominees were shipped to small groups of members to watch and judge. Members were limited to serving on four judging panels. This year, all members were allowed to vote for all of their respective branch categories and all program races. Submitted episodes were posted online and all voting was done that way too. 

Emmy Awards: Complete list of winners

There was an excitement that this could engage younger voters and democratize the Emmy process. But there were also concerns that voters would not have the time to watch all the episodes in all categories. Would the days that the Emmys saved under-watched future classics like “Cheers” and “Arrested Development” be gone? Would the awards become a popularity contest?

When big changes like this are announced there is often a rush to judgment. Proponents will jump on all the great results and declare victory. Critics will cling to the the failures and cry foul. It’s worth remembering that any process has good winners and bad winners. After mulling the winners from Sunday night I don’t think the new procedure is one that is easy to assess. Because, to be honest, most winners had strong episodes, but most were also popular.

Allison Janney (“Mom“) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep“) won for the second year in a row; they had prevailed under the previous system as well. As they both submitted strong episodes, it is hard to argue the new system changed much here. Likewise, Tony Hale (“Veep”) had won under the old system and his episode submission this year was arguably stronger. He and Louis-Dreyfus were also on the comedy series winning show. Did they just get swept up in a wave of “Veep” love? Or was it the strength of their episodes? Probably a bit of both, but how much of each is impossible to tell.

Emmy live blog: Winners, OMG jawdroppers, snubs & snark

Although shifted to Drama Supporting Actress this year, Uzo Aduba was able to win again for “Orange is the New Black.” She is a fan favorite character and won the SAG Award earlier this year. But she also had a strong submission that overcame the frontrunner Lena Headey, from this year’s awards juggernaut “Game of Thrones,” as well as sentimental favorite Christina Hendricks (“Mad Men“). 

Jon Hamm finally prevailed for “Mad Men” having lost seven times under the old system. And Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder“) made history as the first African American to win Best Drama Actress. It could be argued both were helped by the popular vote. But they also had strong episodes that could have won in the old system. It’s hard to know in these cases, because both were in races with other strong submissions that could have pulled it out under a smaller voting pool.

Jeffrey Tambor for “Transparent” was likely helped by the popular vote given his show’s niche market, his overdue status and that his performance is dramatic. However, this category was void of the Jim Parsons-type performance that the episode submission system traditionally favors.

Then there was Peter Dinklage who won again for “Game of Thrones.” It is arguable that his episode reached the level of Jonathan Banks (“Better Call Saul“) or Michael Kelly (“House of Cards).” However, this is not the first year we’ve had a win like this. I remember people scratching their heads when Merritt Wever won for “Nurse Jackie” or Maggie Smith for “Downton Abbey.” “Did they even watch the submissions this year?” people would say.

Emmys: TV shows (‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Olive Kitteridge’)
and networks (HBO, NBC) with most wins

If the biggest flaw on Emmy night was that the most popular character in the most buzzed show on TV won an award, the academy isn’t going back anytime soon. Nor should they. We need to let the new process breathe before casting judgment. However, I do propose two modest adjustments to help smaller performances and underdogs prevail:

1. The links to submitted episodes have to be clicked before members are allowed to vote in a category. It will makes it a little harder for those wanting to vote without watching and if you do click the link you may just decide to watch the episode anyway.

2. If you are an actor wanting to vote in every category you should, in theory, watch 96 entries (and some of them are telefilms), and that doesn’t even account for series races. I think that’s a tall order. The TV academy should cap the number of categories you can vote in, so watching submissions is more manageable and less daunting.

As a huge fan of these awards and someone who treasures the canon of winners they have acknowledged over the years, I want the Emmys to be as good as they can. 

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