Emmy Math: Do Previous Winners Have an Edge? (Analysis)

Courtesy of HBO
'Game of Thrones'; 'Veep'

Crunching the numbers reveals the advantage that drama and comedy series, who've already won an Emmy, enjoy — even though rookie nominees can't be discounted.

Every year, it’s the same complaint: The Television Academy of Arts and Sciences, when it selects nominees for its annual Emmy Awards, nominates the same shows over and over. Familiarity, it seems, leads to nominations. But does it also lead to wins?

In answer to that question, several theories have been put forward.

New shows have an edge. The voters have already had a chance to honor old shows, and now they’re going to throw their support behind the exciting up-and-comer everyone’s talking about. Think Homeland in 2012, knocking off four-time champion Mad Men.

Past winners should be favored. After all, the voting body doesn’t change much year to year, and if they liked the show last year, they’re probably going to like it again. Modern Family’s five-year run, tying the record set by Frasier, immediately comes to mind.

Bet on the perennial nominee. The logic is that they’re “due,” and that voters will want to finally give that annual bridesmaid its long-deserved moment in the sun. Just last year, both Game of Thrones (after four consecutive losses) and Veep (three consecutive losses) fit the bill and finally achieved victories.

Each of these theories is clearly true for some shows and some years, but not others. But what about on average? That is, if we knew nothing about the nominees other than their current winning or losing streak, which nominee is favored to win? The new kid on the block, the past winner, or the past loser?

To answer that question, you need to know how often such streaks occur. Using Emmy results since 2003, the data looks like this:

On the chart above, a “win streak” of 0 means that the series is a first-time nominee – it has no previous wins or losses. So, the middle of the chart shows that there have been both 24 dramas and 24 comedies during this time span that entered Emmy night as newcomers to the scene.

The bars on the right – those with positive numbers, which represent actual wins – all entered that year’s awards show on the heels of at least one previous victory. Game of Thrones, last year’s drama series winner, enters this year with a +1 as does Veep. Mad Men, in 2012, entered with a streak of +4, since it had won on its previous four nominations (although that year it went on to lose, despite its impressive winning streak.) No shows will enter the 2016 with a streak of +2 or greater.

The bars on the left represent shows that lost their last one,two or more nominations. Better Call Saul, if nominated this year, will arrive with a -1, since it lost when nominated last year. Downton Abbey, should it be nominated for its final season will have a -4, since it’s never previously won best drama series at the Emmys despite four nominations.

Now we’re ready to answer our question: Where do the most champions come from – the ranks of the left (previous losers), the middle (first-time nominees), or the right (proven winners)?

The above chart answers that question.

Yellow represents shows that won, and blue means the show lost. So at a glance, the answer is clear: for both dramas and comedies, success begets success. Previous winners have the edge. And if you can’t be a show on a winning streak, it’s better to at least be a rookie than to enter riding a string of losses.

But that’s not the whole story. Tomorrow’s column will look at what it takes to break a losing streak and what it all portends for this year’s potential nominees.

Ben Zauzmer (@BensOscarMath) uses math to predict and write about the entertainment awards for The Hollywood Reporter. He recently graduated from Harvard with a degree in applied math, and he now works as a baseball analyst for the Los Angeles Dodgers.