Watch out, Emmy contenders: Being nominated against a co-star has gone from a blessing to a curse

At the Emmys, having multiple nominees from a TV program competing in the same category used to be a major advantage, but now it may be a major liability. So what’s different now? Recent changes in the voting process have had radical impact on who wins.

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Starting in 2016, winners have been decided by a straight plurality vote instead of a ranked preferential ballot — thrilling, right? Okay, so maybe that doesn’t sound especially earth-shattering, or maybe it’s hard to wrap your head around at all, but bear with me as I walk us through it. Before 2016 voters would pick the winners by ranking the nominees in order of preference: from first place for their favorite candidate to sixth place for their least favorite. Now voters just pick one nominee from the list as their favorite, and the contender with the most votes wins.

To illustrate how this might work in practice, let’s conduct a thought experiment. We’ll consider a hypothetical category of five nominees:

John Q. Public, “Game of Thrones
John Doe, “Game of Thrones”
John Smith, “Game of Thrones”
Alan Smithee, “Game of Thrones”
Joe Blow, “Downton Abbey

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Now let’s consider a voting body of 100 and assume that 75 of them love “Game of Thrones” and hate “Downton Abbey,” while the other 25 love “Downton Abbey” and hate “Game of Thrones.” Since “Game of Thrones” has three times as many fans as “Downton” in this scenario, “Thrones” should win, right?

Yes — if the voting is preferential. If you’re ranking the candidates and only like “Game of Thrones,” that’s 75 voters who will rank the “Downton” star dead last with the “Thrones” actors ranked one-through-four. So no matter what order those “Thrones” actors are in on each ballot, it’s virtually guaranteed that one of them will win.

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However, a plurality vote might end quite differently. Those same 25 “Downton” fans are going to pick that candidate, but let’s assume that the “Thrones” fans can’t agree on which actor from the show was the best. Let’s even imagine that they’re split evenly. When you divide those 75 votes four ways, each nominee would get fewer than 20 votes — so “Downton” wins!

Granted, that’s an extreme example considered with the greatest possible voter polarization, but not only is that scenario possible, we’ve already seen it happen. Consider the race for Best Drama Supporting Actress in which three performers from “Game of Thrones” (Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey and Maisie Williams) really did face off against the grand dame of “Downton Abbey,” Maggie Smith. It’s true that the “Thrones” actors have rarely been favorites of the TV academy (only Peter Dinklage has ever won an acting award from the show), but this was the first time we ever saw three nominated in a single race. Under the old system with small judging panels ranking the performances based on episode submissions, that would have given “Thrones” a big advantage, but instead the Emmys picked Smith, who didn’t have a nominated co-star to split votes with.

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Or maybe Smith really was just their favorite in the category, and no number of “Game of Thrones” nominees would have changed that. I concede that’s possible as Smith is an admired veteran and a frequent favorite of Emmy voters. But Drama Supporting Actress wasn’t an isolated incident. Across the Emmys we saw individual nominees beat multiple nominees:

Comedy Supporting Actor: Louie Anderson (“Baskets”) over “Veep” co-stars Tony Hale and Matt Walsh

Comedy Supporting Actress: Kate McKinnon (“Saturday Night Live”) over “Transparent” co-stars Gaby Hoffmann and Judith Light

Comedy Directing: “Transparent” (“Man on the Land”) over two episodes of “Silicon Valley” and three episodes of “Veep”

Comedy Writing: “Master of None” (“Parents”) over two episodes of “Silicon Valley” and two episodes of “Veep”

Drama Supporting Actor: Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline”) over “Game of Thrones” co-stars Peter Dinklage and Kit Harington

Movie/Mini Actress: Sarah Paulson (“The People v. O.J. Simpson”) over “American Crime” co-stars Felicity Huffman and Lili Taylor

Movie/Mini Supporting Actress: Regina King (“American Crime”) over “American Horror Story: Hotel” co-stars Kathy Bates and Sarah Paulson

Movie/Mini Directing: “The Night Manager” over three episodes of “The People v. O.J. Simpson”

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There were a couple of major exceptions in acting categories, both of which involved “The People v. O.J. Simpson”: Courtney B. Vance won Movie/Mini Actor over co-star Cuba Gooding Jr., and Sterling K. Brown won Movie/Mini Supporting Actor over two “O.J.” co-stars, John Travolta and David Schwimmer. But that was such a dominant contender (it won nine Emmys total) that it might indeed have split the vote — it just wasn’t enough to change the outcome.

That’s a far cry from years past when actors nominated together were a big advantage. Consider “Cagney and Lacey” stars Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly, who traded Best Drama Actress back and forth for years. The three “Golden Girls” stars — Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White — all had a turn winning Best Comedy Actress. Edie Falco (“The Sopranos”) won multiple Drama Actress Emmys with the help of co-star Lorraine Bracco. Felicity Huffman won Comedy Actress for “Desperate Housewives” in 2005 with help from two co-stars, Teri Hatcher and Marcia Cross. And “Modern Family” had a stranglehold on the comedy supporting races while the show had two, three or four actors nominated in each.

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The co-star advantage in previous years was also based on another pivotal factor: episode submissions viewed by a small jury of voters who usually watched and evaluated the footage carefully. A strong episode entry by an underdog often resulted in shocking (and worthy) upsets — like Bryan Cranston pulling off a jaw-dropper that first, low-rated season of “Breaking Bad” over TV superstars Jon Hamm (“Mad Men”), Hugh Laurie (“House), and Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”). Prior to 2015, it was obvious that TV academy members watched the episodes before casting ballots. Recently, the voter base was expanded to include all 2,500 members of the acting branch (instead of 50 to 75 judges in the old days) and it’s unlikely that they’re all watching episode submissions.

Back in the days when voters actually paid attention to the episodes, they would see, for example, four performances by Eric Stonestreet in the race for Best Supporting Comedy Actor when he’d be nominated against three “Modern Family” co-stars, as occurred when he won in 2012. That year “New Girl’s” Max Greenfield probably didn’t have a prayer to prevail since he didn’t have additional screen time on another nominee’s video.

We also saw that same phenom with Edie Falco, who frequently got a boost from her scenes on Lorraine Bracco‘s “Sopranos” reel, and Felicity Huffman, who may have been even better in Marcia Cross’ submission for “Desperate Housewives” when she won in 2005.

It’s hard to judge the new voting system by just one year’s results, but one race alarmed many Emmy-watchers last year. Based upon the strength of his episode submission and the fact that he was nominated against “Game of  Thrones” costar Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington was widely considered to be the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. However, he lost to  Ben Mendelsohn, who didn’t square off against a “Bloodline” costar. Did Harington and Dinklage split the “Game of Thrones” vote? Such vote-splitting rarely occurred under the old Emmy voting system.

Perhaps multiple nominees won’t stand in the way of victory this time around. But even if it doesn’t hurt, under the new rules it’s hard to imagine that it would ever help the way it did before. So to the stars of “Feud” (Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon), “Big Little Lies” (Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon), “The Night Of” (Riz Ahmed and John Turturro), “This is Us” (Sterling K. Brown and Milo Ventimiglia) and others, watch out for the split.

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