TV Academy awards veep John Leverence dishes Emmys with Gold Derby

Emmy season is an annual ritual spanning many months in which an inordinate amount of energy and attention is spent discussing, analyzing and calculating awards prospects for countless series and performers by thousands of fans and pundits alike. It abruptly ends each September when Hollywood gets together for a televised spectacle of back patting, speeches, tributes and star-gazing.

As the excitement of Emmy Night 2012 is now well and truly a distant memory, we sat down with John Leverence, Senior Vice-President, Awards for the Television Academy (known in some circles as the true Guru of Gold), to talk Emmys, past, present and future.

In this first part of our Q&A, Leverence gives us the last word on the infamous “New Girl” Emmy DVD goof uncovered by Gold Derby on Sept. 7, as well as the Academy’s need to move with the changing TV landscape, and the constant struggle to categorize “hybrid” programming like FX’s “American Horror Story.”

Gold Derby: Back in September, during the Emmy voting period, Gold Derby broke the news that there was a mix up with the DVDs issued to judging panels in the Comedy Actress and Supporting Actor categories, where the episodes submitted by Zooey Deschanel and Max Greenfield were sent out to the wrong voters, and then resent out to the right voters with a disclaimer that they must all sign the affidavits again and revote if they felt that the correct episode changed their vote. This kind of thing doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it must be a complete nightmare to try to solve properly. Do you think the Academy got that one right?

John Leverence: What we did right about it was that we notified those people on the panels that we were sending them the proper DVD and were explaining to them what happened.

The background is that we get so many aspect ratio screw ups when we receive our masters from the networks and studios. So that precipitated a call for new masters, which then came in labeled as “New Girl,” and then rather than making a check, the replicating house mixed them up.

We said to our panel judges, that in order to cast your vote, we know you’ve already done it, but you need to take a look at this new episode, and send in your ballot with an affidavit. To their credit, it was almost all of [the voters in each group], because they were invested, as people were sufficiently keen to make a commitment to this and they wanted to follow it through. But only those ballots that came in with affidavits that paralleled the way we do things normally were counted. We had a strong assurance in the fix-up and the first go-through that the votes were based on actual screenings. It was essentially an extended voting window. In terms of a complaint that voters saw two episodes, I say that any voter is already watching a lot of TV and as such would have a whole storehouse of impressions of a performer in addition to the specific judgment of the episode submitted.

Gold Derby: Looking back over the last few years, the Academy has really tried to stay as relevant as possible. Way back in 1987, ATAS decided to include cable programming for the first time. Nine, ten years ago the Academy then made a concerted effort to recognize reality TV, which accounts for such a large chunk of primetime programming today. Although the Academy is reluctant to change with the times, how difficult is it for the Academy to always try to stay ahead of the curve and be as inclusive as possible?

John Leverence: The two big steps [over the last few decades] were the inclusion of cable back when the CableAce Awards were collapsing in the mid to late eighties, and more recently with the streaming programming over the internet.

I can remember when reality programming was pretty much limited to real stories of the Texas Highway Patrol, and “When Animals Attack” and the stuff that Mike Darnell was doing over at Fox. And now, it has grown to the point where the Academy has added, in about the last 10-12 years, about 20 percent more categories, simply in order to accommodate, more than anything else, reality television. We’re up to 99 categories now.

The TV Academy is very reactive to programming changes. We have seen a significant drop off in longform TV. It’s pretty much been taken over by premium and basic cable, like those Lifetime tragedy films, and to some extent the Hallmark Hall of Fame films. The broadcast networks are much more invested in comedy and reality and some drama. But you can see, looking over the list of Emmy nominations, that the drama categories have almost been ceded, perhaps not consciously, over to outlets other than the conventional broadcast networks.

Gold Derby:  The Academy has also made an effort to contract where necessary too. A couple of years ago, the Best TV Movie and Best Miniseries categories were amalgamated. Then, a couple of months ago, it was announced that the lead and supporting actor categories for movies and minis would be consolidated, which led to a few rumblings that the result would be to exclude many performances that were perhaps not as high profile.

John Leverence:  By having these longer formats, the opportunity, both qualitatively and quantitatively for support and for lead performances to fairly be judged in a single category was adjudged by the Board of Governors to be OK. We’ll see how it sorts out. It is not always a gargantuan effort that is always going to win the day, but rather a smaller, perhaps, as perceived the judges, more finessed program [or performance] that can take that award.

Gold Derby:  In recent years, it has become a really fine line when determining what is a miniseries and what is a drama series. Look at “American Horror Story,” for example. Same goes for “Missing” and “The River,” both on ABC. Next year, we’ll see “Political Animals,” which could have been renewed a second season if its ratings were better, plus “The Big C,” which will wrap its four year run with a truncated fourth season of four longer episodes. We will also might see the return of imports like “Luther” and “Sherlock.” What do you say to critics of the Academy’s discretion when it comes to determining what is a miniseries and what is not?

John Leverence:  The rules are clear about what a TV movie is and what a miniseries is. Where you have a program that significantly and substantively exhibits elements that are described as both drama series and miniseries or longform, we see that as a ‘hybrid eligibility’, and where you have a hybrid eligibility, which is what the Board of Governors determined that “American Horror Story” had, then it seems, to the Board, to be only fair to go to the producer and say that we think we’ve got neither fish nor fowl, we’ve got a bit of both, and rather than ask you to accept our decision that there’s a preponderance of drama series content as opposed to a preponderance of longform structure, we’re going to say to you that this is your show, and you tell us where you want it to go, we will accept this if we have determined that it holds two passports.

That was the situation with “American Horror Story.” Looking forward to “The Big C,” here we have a situation where, looking at our rules, the minimum episode requirement for a drama series or a comedy series is six episodes. So all of a sudden, like with “Luther,” you have a program that is contained within four episodes, and it has absolutely no opportunity, with only four episodes, to go into the drama or comedy series categories. And the reason for this is a very practical one, and that is when we put together our final judging panels, we have three sub-panels, and each one of them views two episodes of a series. So if we don’t have six, we can only service two of the panels.

This stands on the shoulder of a philosophic notion of the Board of Governors with regard to series, and that is, on the one hand we want to give you sufficient room to really strut your stuff, we want to give you six opportunities to come out and show our judges what you’ve done over the course of this season. But, on the other hand, and this is the two-edged sword and perhaps the negative side, you’ve got to come up with six episodes that are going to be sufficiently strong and can go that long distance in order to hold the attention and the esteem of the judges.

All of these seemingly funny little quirky quantitative rules that we have actually go back to very solid, longstanding notions that the Board has about what constitutes an Emmy winning achievement.

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