Emmys mystery: Could alphabetical ballot explain surprise nominations and shocking snubs?

Several weeks ago I proposed a theory suggesting that a performer’s placement in the alphabet affected their chances of being nominated at the Emmys. The more options there are in a category, the sooner the slate will fill up with names from the start of the ballot. Depending on the number of contenders, those with names starting between A and F have a strong advantage while those in the second half of the alphabet are at a disadvantage. While this does not dictate every nominee, it explains who might be ahead in a tight race.

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With half of all the nominees this year showing up in the first third of the ballot, there were a lot of shocks, including:

A
Alan Alda (“The Blacklist”)
Pamela Adlon (“Louie”)
Khandi Alexander (“Scandal”)
Anthony Anderson (“Black-ish”)

B
Elizabeth Banks (“Modern Family”)
Rachel Brosnahan (“House of Cards”)

F
Will Forte (“The Last Man on Earth”)

G
Paul Giamatti (“Inside Amy Schumer”)

H
Gaby Hoffmann (“Girls”)
Gaby Hoffmann (“Transparent”)

Surprises among returning nominees include Reg E. Cathey, Don Cheadle, Emilia Clarke, Alan CummingAdam Driver and Joanne Froggatt.#>

The influx of surprise nominees from the beginning of the ballot brought many surprising omissions from many of the acting races. Thomas Middleditch, Jim Parsons and Andy Samberg were left out Comedy Actor race even though there were seven nominees while Gina Rodriguez wasn’t able to breakthrough into Comedy Actress.

Hugh Laurie, Judith Light and TJ Miller didn’t receive nominations in the supporting comedy races while Nathan Lane, Rita MorenoChris Rock, Kyra Sedgwick and Billy Bob Thornton weren’t able to make it into the comedy guest categories.

In the drama races Clive Owen, Dominic West and Ruth Wilson were not able to get in for their first seasons while the supporting races saw the omissions of David Hyde PierceSissy Spacek, Lorriane Touissant and John Slattery.

Emmy voters are also known to drop off past winners and nominees from the year before with the odds of that increasing with your name placement in the alphabet including this year’s snubs of Julianna MarguliesKate MulgrewMandy PatinkinJim Parsons, Taylor SchillingMaggie Smith, Jon Voight and Kerry Washington.

As the number of contenders in a category increases so do the chances of the alphabet theory having an effect on the nominees.

For example, in the Miniseries/TV Movie performance categories where eligible contenders range from 30 to 90 names, there were lots of surprise nominees that broke this rule including Zoe Kazan, Denis O’Hare, Emma Thompson and Michael Kenneth Williams. In smaller categories like these Emmy voters are able to take the time and really search for performances that resonate with them such as Regina King. And in Comedy Actress, with 46 options, nominees include Amy Schumer and Lily Tomlin.

As the category size grows, the more likely Emmy voters will mark off actors sooner on their ballot. This is especially true when larger categories might not have major frontrunners (or maybe even too many) like the supporting drama categories as well as all four guests. For instance, there were very few frontrunners in Drama Supporting Actor and half of their nominees were in the first 18% of the ballot (Jonathan Banks, Jim Carter, Alan Cumming).

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Drama Supporting Actress was the opposite with too many possible contenders which resulted in half of the nominees (Uzo Aduba, Christine Baranski, Emilia Clarke) showing up at the 15% mark and the other three (Joanne Froggatt, Lena Headey, Christina Hendricks) completing the category by the 36% of the ballot. This means that a lot of Emmy voters were done filling out their ballot before they even reached Kate Mulgrew, Sissy Spacek, Maggie Smith and Lorraine Touissant

Guest Comedy Actress reached the halfway mark at a shocking 8% with Pamela Adlon, Christine Baranski and Joan Cusack. The latest name alphabetically was Gabby Hoffman, well before contenders like Rita MorenoKyra Sedgwick and Octavia Spencer. Guest Comedy Actor saw half of their nominees by the 12% mark while it was 22% for Guest Drama Actor. In the latter, five of the six nominees — Abraham, Alda, Bridges, Cathey, and Fox — were from the first five letters. 

The only guest category to have a variety in terms of the alphabet is Guest Drama Actress with half of their nominees arriving at the 49% mark. This may be due to repeat nominees Allison Janney, Margo Martindale, Diana Rigg as well as Emmy favorite Cicely Tyson. The two surprise nominees — Khandi Alexander and Rachel Brosnahan — were both at the beginning of the voter’s guide.

A pattern also worth noting is the trend this year of which co-star was nominated from a particular series.

Uzo Aduba (“Orange is the New Black”) made it into the crowded Drama Supporting Actress race over past nominee Kate Mulgrew and critics’ favorite Lorraine Toussaint. Likewise, Joanne Froggatt returned while perennial nominee Maggie Smith was shockingly snubbed after a season many were saying could win her a third Emmy for her performance as the Dowager Countess on “Downton Abbey.”

Peter Dinklage continued to be nominated for Drama Supporting Actor over “Game of Thrones” castmates with bigger seasons like Kit Harington.

Gabby Hoffman received a Comedy Supporting Actress bid ahead of “Transparent” costar Judith Light

This pattern also popped up in the guest categories with Reg E. Cathey coming back over Lars Mikkelsen, Margo Martindale returning over Lois Smith, and Michael J. Fox returning over Emmy favorite David Hyde Pierce. Alan Cumming and Christine Baranski were both the first “Good Wife” options in their respected categories, beating out the rest of their ensemble cast.

Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen are the last remaining “Modern Family” ensemble nominees with the rest of the adult cast dropping off in reverse alphabetical order.

Tony Hale earned his third nomination in a row for “Veep” while Hugh Laurie was left out.

Keegan-Michael Key received the only performance nomination while the only other star of the show, Jordan Peele, was left out of the supporting actor lineup.

Any rule like this has to come with a few exceptions. The drama races saw the inclusion of Tatiana Maslany, past nominee Elisabeth Moss and Liev Schreiber. And in the comedy categories, Keegan-Michael Key made it into supporting actor while Jane Krakowski and Niecy Nash made it into the super-sized supporting actress race.

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