TCA Awards mystery solved: What will win Program of the Year?

What really confuses people about the awards that will be given out by the Television Critics Assn. on Saturday is the Program of the Year prize.

The obvious assumption is that it is an award honoring the best TV show of the year regardless of genre. However, since this award was first handed out in 1985, only seven winners were also feted for their Outstanding Achievement in Drama. And no such comedy champ has also been named Program of the Year. 

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The seven Drama winners to also take this top honor were:

1985: “The Jewel in the Crown”
1986: “Death of a Salesman”; shared with “Crisis in Black America” 
1996: “Homicide: Life on the Street” 
1999: “The Sopranos” 
2000: “The West Wing”
2001: “The Sopranos”; shared Drama with “The West Wing”
2008: “Mad Men”

It is unclear as to why neither the miniseries “The Jewel in the Crown” nor the telefilm “Death of a Salesman” contended in the catch-all Movie/Miniseries/Special race.

Neither of the two laffers to take this top award — “Desperate Housewives” (2005) and “Glee” (2010) — won Outstanding Achievement in Comedy, losing those races to “Arrrested Development” and “Modern Family” respectively. 

Why is there such a disconnect? 

These awards employ a different voting system than the Emmys. Whereas each Emmy category has a different panel of judges, TCA members vote in every category every year, so may be prone to spread the wealth as they consider both what they are voting for in other categories as well as what they honored in previous years. 

The Program of the Year category takes into account more than just quality as indicated by the omission of “Outstanding” from the category title, differing it from most of the other TCA awards, including Outstanding New Program and Outstanding Achievement in Reality Programming.

While quality is no doubt a factor, equally important is cultural impact. When “American Idol” (2003), “Desperate Housewives” (2005),  “Grey’s Anatomy” (2006), “Heroes” (2007) and “Glee” (2010) won for their first seasons, all were hot topics at the water cooler.

The lines have blurred in recent years as cable fare has started to dominate the Nielsen ratings. Two of the Program of the Year nominees — “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” — ranked in the top three drama series this season, both for the first time. Each has won Program of the Year once before — “Game of Thrones” in 2012 and “Breaking Bad” last year — and each contends again in that race. However, “The Sopranos” is the only program to ever take this title twice (1999, 2001).

And while both “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones” have also won the Drama race, those victories came in different years than their Program of the Year awards, with “Bad” winning this in 2010 and 2012 while “Game” claimed it last year. 

So, what does this mean in terms of predicting this year’s Program of the Year winner?  

Our exclusive odds have “True Detective” in first place but ranked only second in Best Movie/Miniseries/Special behind “Fargo,” which was not nominated for Program of the Year. Our forecasters have applied the same principle that has resulted in splits of Program of the Year and the comedy or drama award. Indeed, “From the Earth to the Moon” (1998) is the only Movie/Miniseries/Special champ to have also been named Program of the Year.

“Breaking Bad” is in second for Program but first for Drama. Two previous Program champs — “Battlestar Galactica” (2009) and “Friday Night Lights” (2011) — prevailed for their final seasons. Neither of those had won either this race or the Drama one before. 

Orange is the New Black” — which is favored to take the New Program prize over, among others “True Detective” — ranks third for Program.  

The Good Wife,” which contends here for the first time in its five-year run, is ranked fourth.

And “Game of Thrones,” which has reaped Progam bids for each of its first four seasons, is in last. 

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