The Zero Sum Game: Why The Emmys Can Never Be Perfect

In writing this editorial, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I am greatly appreciative of the great work that Tom O’Neil does at The Envelope’s Gold Derby Blog in getting inside scoops on the Emmy Top 10s and creating important discussion about these awards. He is clearly highly committed to this process, and I have great respect for him and his coverage.

But, one of my nagging issues about Gold Derby is its reliance on searching out any potential flaws in the Emmy system and exploiting them in ways that just don’t make any sense. Earlier this week, I was outright flabbergasted at the theory that the reason some favourites didn’t get nominated was because they hadn’t submitted a picture to sit beside their entry on the official list. It’s one thing to mention this off hand (And one voter did mention it to Tom, hence the article), it’s another to turn it into a potential widespread conspiracy. Heck, even his own article listed off all sorts of other competitors who didn’t have pictures but were still shortlisted.

But this is the trend, and a dangerous one. We’re always highly critical of the Emmy Awards process due to the various reformations of the past few years, and while I’m not suggesting that we ignore the negatives in favour of the positives I do think that we need to stop extrapolating grand theories from the exclusions. O’Neil’s latest editorial, continuing to paint his oft-favoured picture of the recent Emmy changes as a conspiracy to get Lost back into the main category, devolves into the usual complaint that the Emmys screwed over The Wire and other low-rated programs.

Has Emmy Wandered Off Base – GoldDerby

And I’m not defending the Emmys’ decision to exclude that great HBO series, but rather defending the system from being to “blame” for the exclusion. While the method that they’ve developed is certainly not perfect, there is no way it can be: like the traditional zero sum game, everything you add to one side will simply be taken away from the other. This journey of Emmy overhaul is likely not over, but every single snub or every single surprise cannot be taken as a pattern to be jumped on, or ironed out. And, this year in particular, the positives seem to have won the day, something that should not lead to such extensive deconstruction of the Emmy process.

The journey of this process is simple: after a number of years of extensive critical disapproval of the Emmy winners, the organization made a change. Now, that original structure was not horrible by any means: it’s not like someone like Jennifer Garner was snubbed of a nomination for the Alias pilot or anything of that nature. Rather, at that point, it was an issue of the awards being stale: with the emergence of new shows like Gilmore Girls on The WB and genre programming like Lost, there was a concern that the popular was no longer reflective of the high quality.

Now, this is not to say that the Emmys have ever been the People’s Choice awards – their choices were always of a genuinely high calibre to be quite honest, and their recognition of shows like Arrested Development or Lost’s first season in this era is reflective of their good taste. But they were just very finicky, and after years of pent up frustration they made a change. The change was to take the top nominees and put them into blue ribbon panels of Emmy voters who would pick the nominees. And then, of course, the nominees were even worse.

That year, we saw not the emergence of an actress like Lauren Graham (Who most credited as the purpose of the legislation, and who never did get her Emmy nomination) but rather Stockard Channing and Christopher Meloni. These were two performers no one saw coming, and ones that most critics were not happy with (Especially Channing, whose show had been summarily canceled). So the panels were now an issue, an example of concentrated power proving even less representative than the broad and exclusive voting process. But there was one exclusion that had everybody angry, and the one that O’Neil highlights as the lynchpin to corruption:

Lost” submitted the head-scratching “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” which makes no sense to nonviewers of the series, so the show got skunked. TV critics of America rose up in revolt, hurling their usual weapons of mass destruction at the TV academy while denouncing its chiefs as morons. But it wasn’t really the chiefs’ fault. Had “Lost” producers submitted the Tailies episode, which TV Guide called its best of that season, the show probably would’ve been nominated again and may even have won.

I’m not entirely sure how many times Tom has copy and pasted this exact same paragraph into his articles, but the number continues to grow. He loves to point out that it was Lost’s producers who made the big mistake, submitting a confusing episode compared to their other option, and that the critical uproar from critics was all a result of this one decision. I won’t argue that they should have submitted a different episode (They did it this year with “The Constant” and got nominated), but I will argue with this characterization of the switch that followed the 2006 Emmys as nothing but a desperate attempt at appeasing critics.

The 2007 model was complicated but also more representative: the popular vote, which includes all Academy members getting to have their voice heard, counts for half of the vote while the panels now decide the other 50%. This was designed, of course, to allow both for the continued closer inspection of the submitted episodes while leaving room to make up for panel snubs through the popular totals. It was their best chance, they thought, of pleasing everyone, but Tom O’Neil and many other Emmy fans are obviously not pleased.

And I don’t blame them, really – I wasn’t happy with Lost getting snubbed last year (With a less confusing episode) the same way I’m not happy with Pushing Daisies’ snub this year. And, Tom may be right that the 100% panel option might have allowed for those nominations to happen, or that some hypothetical ideal option is just waiting to be discovered that would totally fit with that is “right.” Unfortunately, television is far more subjective than that – while Emmy gurus like O’Neil and his Gold Derby moderators Chris Beechum and Rob Lucirio are strong at predicting what people will think, they don’t really have any grounds by which to desire to police said opinions.

The point of Tom’s most recent editorial is to remind the Emmys that just because they “succeeded” at getting Lost back into the Best Drama race doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, and that as long as they continue to snub shows like The Wire that he will not back down from his efforts. I found this attitude justified with the Emmys’ unwillingness to release Top 10 lists when he was leaking them: there is an effort that opens up this process to transparency and has an eventual end goal that seems achievable.

But there is nothing achievable about voting perfection. His example of The Wire is itself, just like Lost, a multi-layered proposition. The show just doesn’t play well with a single episode, a five season novel more than a single season storyline, so the panel system is against it. We don’t know if that would change had the panels been the only tally, but that the show didn’t even rank 6th in the voting tells me that it might not have even done well with the panels. As a fan of good television, and as someone slowly but surely making my way through the series, I sincerely wish that David Simon and Ed Burns had gotten more than a writing nomination.

And yet I don’t think it’s fair to blame the system for this, just as it wasn’t fair (as Tom points out) for us to blame the system for Lost’s nomination when an episode submission was at play, or the subjective opinions of voters were involved. While I understand the argument that the panels actually see the episodes, and can therefore make the more informed decision, I challenge two parts of that: both the presumption that people won’t just ignore what’s on the tape and vote how they want to vote, and the fact that the system as it is now is so totally broken.

Tom himself points out that Bryan Cranston is a surprise nominee in the Lead Actor Drama category over a big name like Patrick Dempsey. I could point to Lee Pace breaking into Lead Actor Comedy, a relative no-name who emerges in a tough race to snare a nom away from a big name like David Duchovony. Yes, you could then counter with Mary McDonnell getting snubbed from Battlestar Galactica, or Jenna Fischer missing out from The Office, but it’s a zero sum game: there is never going to be total failure or total loss, just an inevitable back and forth where sometimes we have to agree to disagree.

My problem with Tom’s perspective is not that he’s wrong, but that he’s overlooking some facts in favour of others. His basic thesis boils things down to the point of outright exclusion:

“The Wire” didn’t get nominated today because it never had a prayer. This new voting system punishes low-rated fare and that’s criminal because it was created to do the exact opposite.

And yet, AMC’s Mad Men was as low-rated as you could imagine but it racked up 16 nominations. Breaking Bad got a handful of nominations and its ratings were even worse, while HBO’s In Treatment saw a handful of deserved acting nominations for a show that never caught on with viewers. And it was the biggest breakout year for basic cable in history, as two shows break into the Top 10 despite generally lower viewership. Grey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty are bumped from the Drama and Comedy races for smaller shows in the process, and we have one of the most eclectic Emmy races of recent years.

I think that the Emmy system still needs work, but romanticizing the panels is no way of going about it. Those are still human beings sitting in those rooms, and they’re still mostly older voters out of touch with what is really going on in television. You could easily argue that Mad Men and Damages only succeeded in this process because of their nostalgic stylings and their star power, respectively – only Dexter is the real anomaly, a bloody and intense show not usually on the Emmy radar.

Tom’s posted multiple polls over the past few weeks asking questions like whether or not increasing the number of nominees would fix the Emmys, but they wouldn’t: the people who would break into contention would mostly be more of the same popular examples, and it’s not as if Emmy voters can be counted on to pick the right winers even when they have the right nominees (See: James Spader, Jeremy Piven). There were more snubs of people who didn’t even make the Top 10 lists this year than there was for the awards themselves, so the even mere existence of the Popular Vote would still result in angry people and “non-representative” nominees.

And any changes that are made will have consequences: eliminating the popular vote altogether for the nomination process seemed a really attractive option, but it led to some strange exclusions both deserving and undeserving. Now, it is true that exchanging the current imperfection for that imperfection might seem tempting, but won’t that vicious cycle just continue? Won’t shows continue to submit the wrong episodes, or simply not even crack the Top 10, even when all critics think they should? And then won’t more outcry follow, and more frustration, and more shows that most of us discerning TV lovers will get snubbed?

Which is why this search for perfection needs to stop – while the current system isn’t living up to the presumed altruistic purpose of the panels, they are working to find that medium. If I was a member of the Academy, I’d hate to have a process where my vote stopped mattering at a point in the process – no voting process will be fully informed, but it’s still a democratic membership that wants their voices to be heard. And I don’t agree with many of their opinions, but at the same time they would probably disagree with most of mine.

What I’m asking for here is not to ignore subjectivity, or to ban Tom or anyone else from expressing their frustration with the process. Rather, it’s about not stretching that frustration into exclusionary analysis – just as Lost, Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars were not just being snubbed due to the voting practices then, The Wire didn’t only lose their chance at Emmy glory based on the current one. When you even out everything at the end of the day, there was a lot of good points with this new process and the bad ones (Entourage’s success, as an example) are more leftovers of an earlier process than signs of a terrible trend for the future.

I’m just worried that every positive thing about these awards is, as Tom puts it, “a sliver of hope;” at what point will it be more than that on this current trend? Are we so used to complaining about the Emmys that we’re blaming the system before just chalking it up to human error? I’m not sure, but I really hope that people keep that question in mind in the coming years.


Filed under Emmy Awards

2 responses to “The Zero Sum Game: Why The Emmys Can Never Be Perfect

  1. Abe

    Good points. I think the only thing that should really be done would be to have people vote on the ballots for only five people rather than then, since voting for a top ten (and the ballots say you have to) encourages you to pad the extra spaces with performers you might have heard of but don’t watch on their shows. I believe that’s how people like Sharon Gless and Fred Willard got through. You watch nine shows and like them, but you need a filler nominee, so how about that actor you really like? I plan to explore this idea if I have time by seeing how differently my final list might be with this selection process. It’s a flawed system, sure, but I think that’s the root of the problem. It’s not going to be solved easily, and I’m also a bit tired of reading about it excessively.

  2. I think that would be a really interesting experiment, but certainly a tough one to calculate. I think it might make voters choose their performers more carefully, or perhaps it might so much exclude other performers that the Top 10 will be even more random.

    I’d love it if this type of research was actually done by the academy, and we were made aware of some of the results – it might give us a glimpse into the process on a realistic level, and we could make more succinct and clear analysis of the system beyond conspiracies.

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