9 Emmy Myths Debunked

John Shaffner (left) and John Leverence
John Shaffner (left) and John Leverence
 Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

TV awards season got you confused? You're not alone. The nuances of how the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences considers its annual slate of nominees can make even the most savvy industry insider feel uninformed. Academy chair John Shaffner and senior vp awards John Leverence clear up some common misconceptions about Emmy.

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Myth #1: The academy has no control over which shows end up on the ballot as drama or comedy. It's completely up to the showrunner to decide in what genre a show belongs.

John Leverence: No. If you have a show like, say, Nurse Jackie, and you want to enter it into comedy series when it might seem more like dramedy, you can put it wherever you want. But the fact of the matter is that all Emmy entries are vetted by the awards committee; on the first page of the academy handbook, it states that the primetime awards committee, on behalf of the governors, is the final arbiter of any and all Primetime Emmy Awards eligibility matters. I think that's a principle that goes to this question, that these things are in fact  vetted. You have within each competition a range; you go from one end, where, say, is the traditional-sitcom type, to the other end, which are more dramedy types. The academy has discussed maybe splitting those at some point, but it's determined that the embrace of comedy is sufficient to bringing them all in. It's tied to the dilution of the Emmy. The categorization jam-ups with that kind of broad spectrum in comedy series is a quantitative issue. The work of each Emmy is a qualitative issue -- and these are very much tied together.

John Shaffner: Right now, with the comedy series category, you have this one major overlap area of comedy and drama. You put one more category in the middle for dramedy, and you'd have two overlap areas to figure out. It never ends. What we do is very complicated. We set out on a road many years ago to cut the pie up. Who had the best filling? Who had the best crust? And then it comes down to who had the best berries and who had the best butter. There's no end to it. Producers can enter their programs essentially on behalf of an individual, but it has to be with the individual's approval. A television showrunner can't just say, "I'm going to put up all the actresses on my show" without their approval. It doesn't work like that.

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Myth #2: A showrunner like, say, Ryan Murphy, whose Glee crosses the comedy and drama genres, could enter his show as a comedy one year and drama another year, depending on which offers him the best chance for a win.

Shaffner: We had that dilemma before. Moonlighting first entered drama and another time comedy. And I think some of David E. Kelley's shows switched categories. It's just too confusing. So there has been a rule in place for the past three years that says you have to make your choice about the category and then stay in there.

Myth #3: Conventional television is the only platform allowed for Emmy eligibility.

Leverence: It's actually not about the platform, it's about the work. If there is a recognizable work in comedy that is significant that matches what we think of as a comedy program, even if it was first broadcast on the Internet, then it goes into the comedy series category. The greatest growth that we've seen has been with the shortform piece on the web, which is why we've have a "special class" award for that. How you receive the show isn't as important as how available it is and the size of the audience.

Shaffner: Typically, what we've been seeing via the Internet is short-format animation. We started out with broadcast, then network, then PBS, then we picked up cable in the 1990s, then satellite came in, and then, ultimately, the Internet came in.

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Myth #4: Like with the Oscars, Television Academy peers in one category (say, writers) only for vote for those peers in the nominating round, then everyone votes for everything in the final round.

Leverence: Not true. For Emmys, it's peers in both the nominating and final rounds. And this is meaningful. For example, had Ricky Schroder been nominated for an Oscar for The Champ in 1980 at age 10, he would have automatically become a full voting Academy member and therefore could have voted on costumes, cinematography, directing, writing -- everything. So that makes you a little like -- what? Was he qualified to make such choices? This is why we have a lot of pride in the way we handle it for the Emmys. When you see the group of Emmy nominees, you realize how meaningful it is that it was their peers, the people who are experts in that field, who put them there.

Shaffner: And one of the things you see with the Oscars; you start seeing a pile-on of awards for a particular program. Then that momentum is probably going to keep going because it's the same group of people piling on awards for the same show over and over again. Whereas you don't have this kind of "roll" in the other Emmy categories because it's a different group of people. If there's a general sense of excellence, then that might carry it through a little stronger with everyone voting. John's group is going to be voting for art direction, and somebody else's group is going to be voting for writing, and they're in their own separate areas. My point is that with the Emmys, absolutely anything can happen, and one thing is not going to give an indication that something else is going to happen through the course of the evening.

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Myth #5: Blocs of Emmy voters at certain companies, studios or networks can target all votes at company entries in the nomination phase and again in the final judging stage.

Leverence: A few years ago, there was a fear about this. Corporations would encourage and assist expanding academy membership within their company so they could increase their so-called "voting blocs." But we have been very careful about putting detailed conflict-of-interest policies in place -- especially at the "blue-ribbon panel level," the final judging phase.

Shaffner: This extends from companies like HBO to sound houses to special visual effects houses. All of those individual members of the academy may volunteer to serve on a panel, but they can't get on a panel unless they're vetted. We also have a rule in key categories that if you've been on a panel for two years, you have to sit out the third year so we don't have the same group of people every year voting on, say, comedy series. You move people out. There's a lot of churning of the individuals making the decisions, which is a good thing.

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Myth #6: A program or film that appeared theatrically before its television airing is not eligible for Emmys.

Shaffner: No. As long as it plays in limited release -- say, at a film festival -- it can be eligible. The board recognizes that in some cases, this kind of marketing is a necessity for some programs and films. The point is that it can't go into general release and establish itself as a feature film. What Chaz Bono did with his documentary is a great example. It premiered at Sundance in January but then aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network in May. And the exposure worked: The film got a nomination for best nonfiction special.

Myth #7: Television programs, series or specials that are made abroad are not eligible for Emmys.

Shaffner: Any program or series is eligible as long as it's a co-production with American partners. For example, this year's miniseries/movie contender, Downton Abbey, was a WGBH Boston-Masterpiece co-production. Also, Telemundo's Spanish-language drama La Reina del Sur (The Queen of the South) was a contender in phase one. They were really pushing it for it.

Leverence: A lot of these British shows -- as much as I enjoy the BAFTA Awards and appreciate the talent that we share across the ocean -- they wouldn't be in place unless they had the American market to help finance them. It's a long tradition for a tremendous amount of English television.

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Myth #8: The Academy is made up of mostly older people.

Leverence: This is the most common misconception of all. No, we don't keep a record of median age -- which is something we've long talked about doing -- so everyone assumes we're all old. But there has been a serious shift in terms of age. About 10 years ago, you could have said yes, we were an older-skewing organization, but I think the evidence is in our nominations. We are embracing all kinds of work; we've very much evolved in that respect. We've really tried hard to consistently reach out to the television community about joining. "Talk to us about joining -- let's see if you're qualified; let's get you in." We're actually up 4.7 percent over last year in membership. I believe those numbers are reflective of the new generation of storytellers and people who are working in the business. I mean, the recognition of younger-skewing shows like Game of Thrones, Glee, American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and others is proof. We really aren't a bunch of 70-year-old grandmas and grandpas.

Myth #9: Anyone who works in the television industry is eligible to become a member of the academy.

Shaffner: Not necessarily. We have 14,000-plus members who were eligible, but they all had to apply and satisfy all the criteria required of their peer group. Also, in the final round of Emmy judging, even if you are a member, you aren't automatically sent a final judging ballot as you are in the first round of judging. It's a huge commitment. You have to give an official "I'll do it" promise.

Leverence: Another even more important part of that myth is, "The screeners don't really matter; people just vote for their favorite actors or performers." Totally not true. I get asked all the time, "Does anybody really watch the screeners?" Yes, they do! All the people I know are like: "Oh, I'm sorry, I can't go out. I'm staying in this weekend because I'm going to be watching my Emmy stuff." It's a very serious responsibility.            

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