The Problem with Predicting the Popular
July 12th, 2009
There are a lot of reasons why my Emmy coverage has been less extensive than previous years leading up to this year’s nominations on Thursday. I’ve been a bit busier with academic work, there’s been a bit more Summer TV to cover, and various other time restraints, first and foremost. But more importantly, the Emmy Nominations process has changed this year to a process that is considerably more difficult to analyze.
This isn’t to say that I won’t be making predictions over the next three days, or that I haven’t been thinking out various scenarios without putting them into blog post form. Rather, because the nominations being based on entirely the popular vote, the predictions being made are without much objective analysis. Before, when panels viewed submitted material in order to make their decisions, we could judge the episodes chosen compared to one another, and decided which one was objectively better, or objectively more suited to Emmy voters. This time around, however, there are no submissions: whatever six shows, or six actors, get the most votes are the ones who will be nominated for Emmys.
The result is that we prognosticators of Emmy have become fortune tellers, attempts to read tea leaves in an effort to decide what the Emmy voters think is popular or deserving of attention. Will last year’s nominees be safe? Will a larger number of veteran performers make it in? Will network series benefit from their wider viewing audience, or will cable series benefit from more targeted advertising campaigns? These are all questions that we can’t really answer in an objective fashion, which leaves us to attempt to think like Emmy voters.
And, well, that’s not easy.
I have no doubt that, in the absence of any real objective analysis, my own opinions have made their way into these predictions. However, I don’t know if there was any way this couldn’t happen: without any way of actually judging in the same way as the voters are judging, which was possible when we could screen the same episodes they would see, we’re left to mediate our impression of the candidates with what we think the voters will think of them. As someone who’s followed the Emmys extensively as of late, I can tell you some of those trends: who they like, why they like them, and whether they’ve been willing to nominate that kind of person in the past. However, with every year comes new variables, things that can’t be predicted even if you tried.
Before, Emmy predictions were a game of strategy, viewing as much material and considering enough angles to piece together a score card reflective of the careful selections achieved through nuanced analysis. This is overselling it, sure, but it still felt like you were more in control. However, even then everyone made choices driven by their emotional attachment to the shows involved, as you can’t love the Emmys without loving television and therefore having your sentimental favourites. Any objective process, no matter how much you may want to separate it from your own subjectivity, will become corrupted in one way or another, and we need to accept that.
I know that some of these decisions are long shots, but the one thing this popular vote-driven system does is create the opportunity for surprises, for nominees that no one saw coming because it’s impossible for any predictor to understand the minds of every Emmy voter. The Emmys have not been immune to their controversy, and they have made some poor decisions in the past, so there’s every reason to believe that there could be some left field decisions that confuse and confound those like myself who take this awards show way too seriously.
However, isn’t that the fun of it all? The uncertainty is actually kind of exciting, even if it makes me look like an idiot blinded by my love of Lost and my frustration with Damages come Thursday. But, there is some part of me that thinks the past few years have taught the Academy some lessons, and that popular vote will reflect not only what is popular but what Emmy voters have seen and heard about in the context of its high quality. While they no longer HAVE to take submissions into account, I believe that their experience with seeing episodes before voting for a winner has taught them how important that is, and how enjoyable it would probably be considering the quality of shows out there right now.
The definition of popular in this instance is not about what show has the most viewers: 30 Rock and Mad Men won last year’s awards, and are favourites again this year, despite having exponentially fewer viewers than some of their competitors. The difference is that they are Emmy darlings, shows that voters have latched onto as favourites. They are subjective just like we are, and in trying to capture that subjectivity we’re forced to consider what gets the most viewers, what has the most previous awards buzz, and the intangible of actual quality. That’s not an easy task, but it ends up being fun even in our inevitable failure.
And thus, we’ll spend the next three days previewing the major categories (plus a post on Wednesday bringing together all of the predictions along with some thoughts on the other categories not given a total preview). I go out on multiple limbs, ignore numerous logical predictions, but end up with all I can really do: my own tenuous balance of my own subjective analysis of television combined with my attempts at an objective consideration of their subjectivity.
Popular’s a tough target to hit, so I figure everyone’s got a shot – we’ll see how things go on Thursday. In the meantime, you can check out some other brave prognosticators over at the Emmy Nominations Edition of the TV on the Internet podcast, where Todd and Libby are joined by Erik Dean Anderson and Big Ted for some great Emmy chatter.
Cultural Learnings’ Emmy coverage kicks into full gear tomorrow with analysis of the Supporting Acting categories, perhaps the most contentious, throughout the day.