Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Modest Proposal - Fixing the Emmys

With Emmy weekend upon us, and this being regarded as one of the worst sets of nominations in a long time I'd like to offer a few suggestions on how to deal with some of the problems that the Emmys are exhibiting. And no I'm not talking about the length of the show or the boring acceptance speeches or any of the other stuff that we - we meaning most viewers including me - like to constantly complain about because let's face it that's not what really really bugs us about the Emmys. No what really bugs us is that shows we see as being superior end up on the outside looking in on the night. You know, shows like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Battlestar Galactica, Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars. And this year is a good time to bring it up, because the "Blue Ribbon Committee" system that was meant to open things up to shows like these not only didn't give them a look but ended up not nominating two of last year's big winners, Lost and Desperate Housewives.

I gave this article the title A Modest Proposal. Those of you with more than a small education will recall that this refers to an essay by Jonathon Swift, the full title of which is A Modest Proposal: For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public. In his satire Swift proposed eating the children of the poor - and presumably Catholic - people of Ireland. While I do not propose the ingestion of the members of the Television Academy - most of them look to be a rather tough and stringy lot - or their children - which in some cases would involve the intake of dangerous levels of chemical substances not recognised by the FDA - I would like to suggest some fairly radical changes to the way the Academy does things. None of them are as radical as what AP reporter Fraser Moore proposes. In his article 1 and done: Stop rampant re-Emmying Moore suggests that you get one Emmy nomination for any particular series or role. Or as he puts it, "Any program, and the individuals attached to it, get one shot apiece at an Emmy. One and done. Only a clear and demonstrable change in a series, or in a character or other aspect of the series, could warrant Emmy reconsideration." As a model he offers the Tonys, in which a play - Phantom of the Opera for instance - can't be nominated every year that it runs. The same applies with the Oscars, Grammys and Pulitzers. To which I say, in the words of Colonel Sherman T. Potter (whose actor, Harry Morgan was nominated for 8 Emmys for the role and won one): "Horse hockey!" The reason if obvious: CDs, articles and movies don't change as time passes, and a Broadway show that opened in 1998 hasn't changed every time it's performed. Broadway shows are stagnant, TV shows are dynamic in that they have new scripts and new situations at least 22 times a year. In his opening paragraph Moore cites Allison Janney's nomination for playing CJ Cregg in The West Wing, but the woman that Janney played in the first episode seven years ago is not the same woman she played in the series finale; CJ Cregg grew and evolved and that's something that a character in Phantom of the Opera doesn't get to do.

Of course I'm not the only one to have ideas on how to change the Emmys in the face of this year's mess. Robert Bianco of USA Today has some ideas in an article entitled Emmys need a fast fix. He has some good ideas - in fact so good that I've integrated some of them into my own proposals. Some of his ideas are impractical though. You are never going to eliminate "category shopping" (where a star of a show is nominated in the supporting category so that the other star of the show doesn't have his vote split and both lose) - I mean let's face it, that's been going on in the Oscars for decades. And forming up his "policing committee" who would "clean up" the nominations from network executives has a bit of a ring of the fox guarding the hen house about it. On the other hand his idea about the need to expand the Academy membership to bring in new voices which might prove to be a bit more representative is an interesting one. I'm not sure if it's practical but it is interesting. (Oh yeah, and he's right; the Emmys shouldn't be at the end of August just because NBC has Sunday Night Football, they should be at the traditional start of the TV season, the middle of September.)

So having disposed of Mr. Moore's arguments and acknowledged Mr. Bianco's, what are my proposals?

1. Increase the maximum number of nominees in each category to ten from five
Why are there only five nominees per category? Is it because that's what the Oscars do and the Emmys want to be like their older brother? At one point five nominees made sense. In the 1975-76 season (which I chose because it was 30 years ago) there were three networks, each broadcast 3 hours per night six nights a week (they programmed Saturdays then) and four hours on Sunday. That's 66 hours per week. Setting aside news magazines, variety shows, and scheduled movies, the networks were broadcasting (at the start of the season) 39 hour long dramas and 20 half hour comedies. Five nominations for Outstanding Drama Series and five for Outstanding Comedy Series translates to one nomination for slightly under 8 dramas, and one nomination for every 4 comedies. By way of contrast in the 2006-07 season five networks (My Network isn't being counted here because of its format) will be programming a total of 82 hours. Excluding reality programming and news magazines this means 45 dramas and 26 comedies (including several hour long shows classified as comedies). That's 9 dramas per nomination and 5 comedies. That's without counting original series made for cable networks which is a growing area of the industry and a sector which is producing product that is often of a higher quality than the networks are able to produce. There's more TV being produced so why not more nominations.

2. Scap the Blue Ribbon Panels
(This is one of Bianco's) The system of sending screeners to members and letting them vote on the nominees was actually putting different shows into the lists - it wasn't happening fast but it was happening - while the Blue Ribbon Panel system didn't achieve the goal that its creators set for it, opening up the Emmys to shows that had been excluded. It's arguable that if you didn't have the panels you wouldn't have had the Hugh Laurie situation where House is nominated but Laurie isn't, or the mess surrounding Desperate Housewives, not to mention the Outstanding Actress in a Comedy situation. The voters aren't perfect though - they were the ones who gave Ellen Burstyn a nomination for a 15 second appearance.

3. Change the composition of the Blue Ribbon Panel
If you don't scrap the Blue Ribbon Panel, change who makes it up. One of the early critiques of the Emmy nominations actually made the point that some shows - Lost was one that was cited - weren't nominated because they didn't "play the game" properly. The game is providing the right episodes for the people who come up with the preliminary nominations and the Panel. In the case of Lost the episodes they provided were what the producers regarded as the best episodes of the season. The problem was that these episodes were heavily tied into the show's "mytharc" and don't make that much sense to people who don't watch the show on a regular basis. Shows that were nominated were either shows without a heavy arc quality or provided episodes that stood on their own more readily. The Blue Ribbon Panelists were people in the business of television production in one capacity or another and therefore aren't people who watch a lot of TV (they're too busy making it). The obvious answer, and it's not one I'm entirely comfortable with, is to reach outside the television production business and form a panel of people who watch a lot of TV to weed out the duds from the preliminary rounds of voting. In short, critics.

4. Restrict the number of nominations a show can have in a given category to two
This is mainly directed at the writing and directing categories but sometimes shows up in the acting categories. Is there anything more annoying than seeing your favourite show not getting a nomination because some other series had two, three, or even four nominations (like The Sopranos did for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series in 1999)? Sure you've got different writing teams but still there needs to be a limit. In truth if the nominations are kept at five, I think the limit should be one nomination in the writing and directing categories - the producers should have to pick the outstanding work that was done on their show before submitting it - but I'll settle for two.

5. Give any Blue Ribbon Panel a little extra to do
Another activity for the Blue Ribbon Panel could be to "vet" the nominations in all categories to remove the truly absurd choices like the Ellen Burstyn nomination. Their job in this area would be more along the lines of what the role of the Canadian Senate is supposed to be, a chamber of sober second thought. Their job in this area wouldn't be to pick and choose nominees, it would be to get rid of the real absurdities. As much as I feel that Stockard Channing's Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy nomination is a case of "hey I know her name, she's always good", that's not an absurdity; nominating Ellen Burstyn (who's always good) for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for 15 seconds of work is an absurdity.

6. Try a little honesty
Let's admit the fact that the Emmys aren't really about acknowledging the Outstanding Drama Series or the Outstanding Supporting Actress. The Television Academy doesn't see the complete series for the year or the whole work of the actors and actresses. What they're looking at is two or three episodes which obviously leads to cherry picking - submitting the best two or three episodes. Or rather submitting the best two or three episodes that play the game, the game being to submit the episodes that don't require you to know what happened before and what the consequences of this episode would be later. Lost lost in the nomination process because they submitted "best" episodes which they thought of as best but which required a lot of set up. Which is one reason for scrapping the Blue Ribbon Panel system, because with at large at home voting - the system that was in existence for the past few years - there were at least some voters whose memory or knowledge of particular shows extended beyond the episodes submitted. The other option is to do what the Writing and Directing categories do; nominate an actor or a show for one episode. Say specifically that the Emmy for the Outstanding Performance by a Lead Actress in a Drama goes to Allison Janney of The West Wing for her performance in this one episode. If you can't judge a show or a performer by their full body of work for the year then acknowledge the fact. It won't help Lost get a nomination - despite being one of the best series on TV - but for now at least I don't how to change the game extensively enough that it doesn't favour the producer who works the system. And at least with this suggestion the public knows what they're getting.

I would really be interested in seeing some comments on this.

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