Animation categories aren't confusing -- they're just drawn that way
When the producers of Comedy Central's "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends" went through their list of episodes to submit for this year's Primetime Emmy Awards categories, they had to make a calculated decision. They'd won an individual achievement Emmy last year (awarded to supervising character designer Shannon Tindle) and three in 2005, but they had never landed a show Emmy. So this year, they submitted longform specials for the outstanding animated program (for programming one hour or more) category.
"We won't be fighting for a spot as much as we usually are," "Foster's" creator/executive producer Craig McCracken explains.
In theory, there shouldn't be so much hand-wringing over an Emmy category, but the four that represent animation at the Primetime Emmys have been causing consternation almost since they were created in 1989. While most Primetime Emmy categories are fairly straightforward, largely separated by genre with subcategories for length, the animation categories cast a wide net over an entire style of visual presentation. That means adult cartoons go up against kids' fare, and dramatic animation can butt heads with comedic forms.
The animation categories also follow different submission and judging rules than the live-action ones; nominations are determined by votes from the Television Academy's animation branch only, and animated series are nominated for a single episode. The nominated episodes are then given back to the peer group for final judging.
"They don't just vote on how good or popular something was or how appropriate to pop culture it was," says Sheri Ebner, Primetime awards manager for the Television Academy. "They really do watch it, and they have their own standard of excellence."
Says John Altschuler, executive producer/co-showrunner of Fox's "King of the Hill," which has had no success submitting to the outstanding comedy series category: "We would love to put the show in the animated category and allow the scripts to be judged as half-hour comedy writing. Whatever choice we make isn't a fair determination of the show. If we (submit to) live-action categories, we're dismissing the amazingly hard work of the animators -- but if we go to the animation category, then we're saying that the scripts don't matter."
"King" isn't the first show to have reversed course after considering a nonanimation-category run. Fox's nine-time Emmy winner "The Simpsons" lost out in its fourth and fifth seasons, when episodes submitted to the outstanding comedy series category landed them a shutout.
"At the time, there were a lot of articles saying that 'The Simpsons' should be able to compete against the best comedy series of the year," "Simpsons" executive producer/showrunner Al Jean recalls. "It was interesting, but I think we'd rather be in the category where we're appreciated."
Not since 1961, when "The Flintstones" was nominated in the outstanding program achievement in the field of humor category, has an animated series landed an Emmy nomination berth in a nonanimation category; none has ever won.
According to Television Academy senior vp awards John Leverence, submitting "Simpsons" as a comedy was an experiment -- initiated by producers at Gracie Films -- that failed.
"It was one of those situations where a very writer-driven production company was interested in seeing if what they considered to be essentially a three-camera sitcom could go in with their peers in the sitcom world," he recalls. "There was not an enthusiastic response from the live-action world of voters to 'The Simpsons' coming over, so they went back to animation, where they have continued on to great success."
Yet, it's a success that feels qualified -- as though animation can only be judged against other animation -- and thanks to the "Simpsons'" failures, few shows will do more than explore another run at a nonanimation category.
"We talked about it last year," Fox's "Family Guy" executive producer/showrunner David Goodman says. "We considered submitting ourselves (for) best comedy series, and we found out that the (Television) Academy would not recognize our supervising directors, who do a great deal of work to make sure the show is as great as it is."
Once resigned to staying in their own neighborhood of animation categories, shows often find they have other stumbling blocks to deal with. McCracken's "Foster's," for example, is a children's show with limited adult appeal. The Daytime Emmys do have a children's animation category, but "Foster's," like many shows on Comedy Central, doesn't run in the right daypart to qualify.
"It's frustrating for people on my end of animation," says McCracken, whose show lost last year to "Simpsons." "The people judging are adults, so they're going to honestly respond to things that communicate to them naturally, which is more adult humor."
There's yet another challenge faced by many animated shows: not being on Fox. That network has three of the top primetime animated programs -- "Simpsons," "Family" and "King of the Hill" -- which that have only been bested in the past decade by Cartoon Network's "Samurai Jack" in 2004 and "South Park" in 2005. "We're extremely lucky to have these shows," Fox senior vp current programming Marcy Ross says. "We've created a brand."
Chuckles Joe Murray, creator/executive producer of Cartoon Network's "Camp Lazlo," another children's' show that was nominated last year: "The staff of 'The Simpsons' are probably using their Emmys as paperweights by now. Not to take anything away from how great those shows are, but there is a certain underdog thing there."
For McCracken and Murray, however, the supremacy of Fox shows in the category contributes to an overall feeling of alienation. "Some of the people from the other shows felt that the kids were being invited to the adult table," Murray recalls of last year's Creative Arts ceremony (set to take place Sept. 8), where the animation winners are traditionally announced. "They weren't sitting too well with that."
While the Television Academy doesn't plan to alter the animation categories to accommodate the preferences of individual shows, Leverence says that the progressive nature of media will eventually lead to the introduction of more award slots for animated content.
"Probably as early as next year, you'll see our board of governors taking a look at the necessity to accommodate new kinds of programming," he says, referring to online material in particular. "There seems to be a very strong surge of seven- to 10-minute episodes of animated programming in adult-fare mode originating on broadband." (This would be nonexclusive to broadband.) "It's all part of the same pool."
In the meantime, it's business as usual for the regular nominees. For this year's competition, "Simpsons" submitted a fan-favorite episode, "The Haw-Hawed Couple," and Jean expresses optimism about its potential. "We're very happy to be in the animation category," he says, adding, "We don't live our lives by what category we're placed in. We want the audience to like it -- and get a lot of acclaim."
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