Tom O’Neil on new, stricter monitoring of Emmy voters: ‘It’s magnificently cruel!’

As TV academy members pick Emmy winners this week and next, there’s a harsh change in the process. Now voters must really, really promise that they’ve viewed at least one episode of each nominee in a category before completing their ballot.

Last year voters had to make the same pledge, but it wasn’t extracted at the end of the academy’s cynical finger pointed fiercely between the voter’s eyes. On the 2017 ballot, a warning reminded voters that they promised to watch a sample of each nominee’s work in a category before crowning their champs. Voters even had to check off a box before proceeding, but once you cleared security at the door, you were allowed to enter the main ballot area and start pulling levers, wreaking havoc.

This year, however, there’s a big, scary security goon lurking around every corner to extract your sacred vow again and again and again to behave.

As soon as you log in to the academy’s voting website, the first thing you see is a stern warning: “Before voting in a category you must have watched at least one full episode of each nominated program.”

When you choose a category, but before you are permitted to vote, another warning pops up reminding you that you must confirm that you’ve watched all episodes. If you haven’t done so, there’s a convenient link to a separate viewing website that features all episodes submitted by contenders.

After you make your pick in a category, you are not permitted to submit it until you click a box that appears next to an affidavit forcing you to swear that you’ve done your viewing homework “and that I have voted in accordance with my informed, professional evaluation of all nominees in the category.”

Back in the good old, even stricter days (1970s to late 1990s), the academy cared so much about voters being fully informed and accountable that they blatantly policed them. The only way you could vote in the final round was if you attended screening panels held (usually) at the Beverly Hilton Hotel where you’d be forced to watch sample episodes in each category while monitors roamed the room, threatening to oust any criminal caught chatting, reading Playboy or doodling out a grocery list.

The system was widely denounced as too cruel by the lazy, pampered TV industry, but results were magnificent. Worthy underdogs triumphed all the time. Consider this: All of these (once low-rated) TV shows were saved from early network cancellation by winning Emmys: “Cheers,” “Hill Street Blues,” “All in the Family,” “Cagney & Lacey.” Even “Seinfeld.”

In 2000, ATAS made a bold change that threatened to endanger Emmy’s integrity. Members could suddenly vote at home without monitors, but they had to sign affidavits attesting that they viewed a DVD submitted by each nominee as an example of their best work and voters were restricted to judging only several races.

The result was a shocker that suggested – OMG – Hollywood voters could be trusted! Underdogs continued to prevail: Sela Ward (“Once and Again”), James Whitmore (“The Practice”), Eddie Izzard (“Dress to Kill”) and others. Justice reigned in Emmyland for another decade and a half until – uh, oh! – the inevitable plot complication occurred in this story of Hollywood. In 2016, the academy caved under growing pressure to “Let the people speak!” It suddenly threw open the gates and let all barbarians burst in and vote for everything: all program categories and all races within their peer groups.

Veteran Emmy watchers like me were terrified of what might follow. After all, without Sister Mary Holywater prowling her classroom with a steel ruler in hand as she marches between rows of desks, spit wads are gonna fly!

I have not yet formed my own strong opinion of what to think of the new Emmys.  So far we’ve only seen two years of vote results. Yes, it was socko to witness an underdog like Ben Mendelsohn (“Bloodline) win Best Supporting Drama Actor in 2016, but did that happen because frontrunner Kit Harington split the “Game of Thrones” vote with past winner Peter Dinklage?

Under the old voting system, vote-splitting wasn’t a thing. In fact, it helped your chances to win if you competed against a costar. Since voters actually watched episodes submitted by nominees, they saw four performances by Ty Burrell in the 2011 race for Best Supporting Comedy Actor when he competed against three costars: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O’Neill and Eric Stonestreet. Voters only saw one performance by poor Chris Colfer (“Glee”). Did Golden Globe victor Colfer really have a chance at the Emmys? Let’s be honest: the obvious advantage held by multiple program nominees had to be one of the reasons “Modern Family” dominated that category for four years out of five (2010-2014). Another reason: Yes, Burrell and Stonestreet deserved to win, but to romp?

There was another welcome shockeroo in 2016 – over in the race for Best Drama Actress when Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) prevailed. But did that happen because of another change in the voting process? Starting that year, voters no longer ranked contenders in a category. They just picked a winner and it’s easy to see how Maslany – a TV critics’ favorite for a low-rated performance on BBC America — could snag a plurality vote if she only needed 18% of the ballots. She was nominated the previous year when she needed a consensus vote to win, but she lost to veteran industry darling Viola Davis (“How to Get Away with Murder” on ABC).

The TV academy will not officially reveal how many of its 22,000 members vote, but several informed sources tell me that participation is far less than you might suspect (under 40% is my guess) and that most voters do not participate in all eligible categories. In fact, most voters leave up to half or more of their ballots blank.

As president and editor-in-chief of Gold Derby, I am a member of the academy’s interactive branch. Like most of my peers, I consider Emmy voting a privilege and I take my responsibility seriously. It’s tempting to vote in categories containing nominees I haven’t seen, but that urge is easy to resist because I have so many category options: 6 in my peer group and 16 program races in the general pool open to all academy members. I don’t mind skipping over many categories as long as I get to be bossy in a few.

So far I’ve filled out less than half of my ballot. I’ll probably get back to it later this week – as soon as I catch up with a bit more viewing. It’s nice that the academy makes the episodes so convenient to see all in one place at a separate website. Thank you, Emmy leaders. Good luck with your gutsy experimentation. It’s impressive to see you trying so hard to get it right.

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