Should the Emmys abandon at-home voting and return to viewing panels?

Before joining Gold Derby, I assumed that the Emmys were judged over a whole season of work but soon found out that episode submission tapes were actually the way in which the winners were decided. This fact is still not widely known among many nominees and winners.

The Emmys did use the same system as the Oscars up until legendary writer and producer Rod Serling became their president in 1965. “It’s time we became not just an industry but an art form,” he announced before completely overhauling the awards for the 1965/66 season. While his area awards scheme only lasted one year for the major categories, his changes to the voting system have remained to this day.


At the time, the networks were using bloc voting to make sure their shows picked up as many trophies as they could. To counter this, Serling created peer group panels to judge the winners. All the voters would have to see selected episodes from each nominee. This meant that any member who wanted to vote went along to a hotel room on a given day to watch all the nominated episodes from a category.

The system was set up to make the Emmys the fairest and best of the best. This was most memorably shown in 1971. Less than a month after calling the 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 was happy to accept this award as “it was bestowed by a panel of experts.”

With changes in technology came a change to the voting system for the 1999/2000 season. Instead of requiring voters to go to a hotel to see the submissions they would be able to view the tapes at home. At first this was seen as a success with the victory of Sela Ward (“Once and Again”) for Best Drama Actress over “The Sopranos” duo Lorraine Bracco and Edie Falco as well as Amy Brenneman (“Judging Amy”) and Julianna Margulies (“ER”) hailed as proof that the voters had watched the tapes.

However, since then there have been signs that the tapes may not have been the sole judge of a winner. In the decade of home viewing there have been more questionable decisions from the Emmy voters than any other time. Everything is subjective of course so there will always be races that go against some people’s views. But there are occasions that have gone against all the experts who have viewed all the tapes leading to a feeling that more and more decisions are being taken that have nothing to do with the submissions.

The Best Actor and Best Actress in a Drama Series awards for the 2000/01 season may seem beyond reproach returning “Soprano” stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco to the podium. But their wins came over a pair of the most memorable performances in their series histories. Gandolfini triumphed over Martin Sheen‘s most memorable “The West Wing” episode “Two Cathedrals” where President Bartlet grieves over Mrs. Landingham’s death culminating with his decision whether or not to seek re-election. And Falco beat co-star Bracco who was a victim of rape in her submission “Employee of the Month.”

If those races were difficult to call the following season brought jawdroppers in the same categories when Michael Chiklis won for “The Shield” with the Pilot episode 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 had previously won twice for Best Supporting Drama Actress and this time triumphed over both Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”) and Jennifer Garner (“Alias”). Both rivals had submitted their show’s pilots and most experts saw Garner as a clear favorite as her episode contained the full range and impact needed to win while Janney was barely featured in her episode.

The winner of the battle for Best Comedy Actress in the 2004/05 season is another that confuses many. Felicity Huffman beat out her much fancied “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 for the 2006/07 season of “Grey’s Anatomy” was all the more confusing as she hadn’t even been nominated for the previous season where she had heavily featured in the Denny Duquette storyline. Perhaps the nomination and subsequent victory were due to her outspoken defense of co-star T.R. Knight over Isaiah Washington in the wake of his Golden Globe press conference in early 2007.

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The most recent example of an Emmy win not being solely due to the submission tape came in last year’s Best Comedy Actress category. Surprise nominee and eventual winner Melissa McCarthy (“Mike & Molly”) was considered a virtual no-hoper by those viewing the tapes. This combined with her previous failure to be nominated for excellent work in supporting roles in “Gilmore Girls” and “Samantha Who?” added to the bewilderment.

The nominees lined up against her were Edie Falco (“Nurse Jackie”), Tina Fey (“30 Rock”), Laura Linney (“The Big C”), Martha Plimpton (“Raising Hope”) and Amy Poehler (“Parks and Recreation”) The reason for McCarthy’s nomination and win were her supporting role in the smash hit movie “Bridesmaids.” Her performance was so good but as it was in a bawdy comedy voters wrongly presumed she wouldn’t have been recognized at the Oscars so decided to reward her with an Emmy.

Emmy voters have always had their favorites; hence, the many repeat winners and types of winners. Howver, the hotel-based voting system was transparent. Everyone knew that all the voters had watched every nominee and judged them solely on those tapes ignoring industry buzz or campaigns.

There may be better ways to judge Best Drama Series since submissions tend to favor self-contained shows over those with big story arcs. Acting wise, no system will ever be perfect. However, the Emmys probably came closest with the hotel-based voting system.

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