Why Donald Trump May Have a Big Impact on the Emmys

Shows that deal with Trump-related issues — including hacking, Russian spies, misogyny and racial intolerance — may be getting a subliminal boost.
Illustration by Cameron Cottrill

For someone who purports to hate the Emmys, Donald Trump has given the awards show a lot of attention over the years. As The Hollywood Reporter was the first to report, Trump has been a member of the TV Academy since June 2004, six months after his reality show The Apprentice premiered. That program generated massive ratings for NBC, but it never clicked with Emmy voters. Its first two seasons were nominated for reality competition series, but it lost both times to The Amazing Race and was never nominated again — to Trump's everlasting fury. "I got screwed out of an Emmy," he said of his first loss during an Apprentice episode a decade later. "Everybody thought I was going to win it. In fact, when they announced the winner, I stood up before the winner was announced, and I started walking for the Emmy. And then they announced the most boring show on television, The Amazing Race. Piece of crap."

Over the ensuing years, Trump became a relentless critic of the telecast: "If the Emmys want their ratings back, they have to pick shows that deserve it" (2010); "Fewer people watch the Emmys each year, and for good reason … they choose the wrong shows" (2011); "The Emmys have no credibility … all politics" (2012); "The Emmys are sooooo boring! Terrible show. I'm going to watch football!" (2013); and "Which is more dishonest — the #Oscars or the Emmys?" (2014). In 2015, Trump declared his candidacy for president, and at the final presidential debate in 2016, Hillary Clinton stated, "He didn't get an Emmy for his TV program … and he started tweeting that the Emmys were rigged," at which point Trump interjected — to laughter from the audience — "Should have gotten it!"

Now that Trump has won an even greater prize — the presidency, which some think he wouldn't even have pursued had he gotten a trophy — there's reason to believe he might actually have more of an impact on the Emmys than when he was in contention. One must acknowledge that the oddities of Trump's first months in office have altered the compass of what seems normal and crazy — on TV and off. Veep, which won best comedy in 2015 and 2016, is all about outrageous ineptitude in and around the White House; now, at a time when a press secretary berates the press for questioning demonstrably false statements and a president walks out of an executive order signing ceremony without having signed an executive order, it's harder to come up with fiction that's stranger than the truth (something Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus has noted). Similarly, House of Cards, a show about brazen corruption in the White House that earned drama series nominations for its previous four seasons, seems far less shocking than it once did.

Another problem for shows like these: Voters, like many in the public, increasingly prefer to avoid altogether the depressing subject of White House politics when they turn on the tube. At the same time, shows that deal only indirectly — and critically — with Trump-related issues may be getting a subliminal boost. Suddenly of broader interest are topics like hacking (Mr. Robot), Russian spies (The Americans), misogyny (The Handmaid's Tale and Big Little Lies), racial intolerance (Black-ish and Atlanta), LGBT issues (Transparent), undocumented immigrants (American Crime), Wall Street greed (Billions and The Wizard of Lies) and, yes, a female president (Homeland).

Of course, some prefer escapism, which might explain the popularity of comedies (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) or glorified soap operas (This Is Us) or period pieces set safely in the past (The Crown) or shows that might be called otherworldly (Stranger Things).

As for individual contenders, their public stance about Trump could have a redounding effect. The Late Show's Stephen Colbert went after Trump ("The only thing [his] mouth is good for is being Vladimir Putin's cock holster") and surged in the ratings past The Tonight Show's apolitical Jimmy Fallon, who infamously fluffed Trump's hair prior to the election, which some criticized as a "normalizing" gesture. Last Week Tonight's John Oliver, The Daily Show's Trevor Noah, Full Frontal's Samantha Bee, Late Night's Seth Meyers and Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party's Martha Stewart also went after Trump and could see a similar boost in Emmy buzz. Meanwhile, Feud's Susan Sarandon won't be helped by the fact that she has been unrepentant about arguing that there's no difference between Trump and Clinton.

Lest anyone think that considerations like these — what one might call the "send a message mentality" — don't factor into voting, look no further than last February's Oscars. The Iranian film The Salesman had no prayer of winning best foreign-language film until Trump declared his "Muslim ban," at which point the film's director, Asghar Farhadi, said he would boycott the Oscars; Hollywood rallied against Trump's plan by rallying behind Farhadi, and The Salesman won.

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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