Showtime Chief: How to Pick the Perfect Emmy Episode (Guest Column)

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images (Nevins); Courtesy of Jeff Neumann/Showtime (Billions, Homeland)
Claire Danes in 'Homeland'; Asia Kate Dillon in 'Billions' (Inset: David Nevins)

David Nevins dives deep into selections for 'Homeland,' 'Billions' and 'Shameless' in a competitive landscape where finales aren't always favorites and comedies often stand out when they're being dramatic.

Every year, Emmy season forces Showtime into the uncomfortable position of deciding which of its children we think awards voters will love the most. It's an annual rite of passage for all of us in television — the process of singling out individual episodes "for your consideration," as they say, for the Television Academy's highest honors.

In a way, the whole setup is counterintuitive. When we say, "Billions is Emmy-worthy," or, "Ray Donovan is long overdue for awards recognition," it's because of the cumulative power of a seasonlong build. It feels kind of crazy to say that all their good work is exemplified by one episode and they just chilled for the rest of the season — it's not like anyone ever won the Nobel Prize in Literature for a really great chapter seven. (Not that we should confuse an Emmy with the Nobel Prize.)

But the reality is that the TV Academy requires most of those seeking a nom­ination to tie themselves to a specific subset of their work — one episode. So, to use a different analogy, we're looking for a knockout punch — an episode that puts the competition down for the count.

The process is essentially year-round, rooted in developing our awards streaming site and official FYC mailer that will go out to the voting body ahead of the nomination ballot. Obviously, we like to think that discerning Academy members have been watching Showtime programming every Sunday night like clockwork. But given how much great television the industry is producing these days, we can't count on everyone's perfect attendance. Our screeners — DVDs or digital — along with the campaigns behind them, go a long way toward making our case for the aforementioned shows as well as our other bellwethers such as Homeland, Shameless and The Affair, our limited series Guerrilla and our great nonfiction programming such as The Circus.

In a sense, we are carving a narrative for each show outside of itself: what — and who — exactly makes it distinctive, makes it worth watching, makes it worth admiring and honoring.

Take our esteemed Homeland director, Lesli Linka Glatter, a four-time Emmy directing nominee — not to mention DGA winner in 2015. She delivered outstanding work on four different episodes this past season. How do you choose? The one with the richest Claire Danes-Rupert Friend performance scenes or the one with the most inventive action sequences? If you're lucky, you'll get it all in one hour — as in our season finale, "America First," which combined her skill with a powerful script by Alex Gansa and Ron Nyswaner to forge a true showcase.

With Billions, it was the season's penultimate episode, "Golden Frog Time," that emerged as the frontrunner. So we're going all in on that one across several categories, including writing (showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, along with Brian Chamberlayne), directing (Karyn Kusama), cinematography (Jake Polonsky) and picture editing (Nick Houy). Down the road in the post-nomination phase, it could even be the episode that puts Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti or members of our deep and talented supporting cast over the top, especially Asia Kate Dillon, who has broken out with a groundswell of attention.

None of these episode selections would be possible without engaging in an extended conversation among Showtime's awards department, our programming executives, the shows' executive produc­ers and me. Because of our shared sensibility from working together on a project, our preferences tend to dove­tail — most of the time. When we disagree, well, that's when it gets interesting. After all, who doesn't like arguing about this stuff?

Should we favor the quiet, intense heartbreaker that features a lead mourning a death, or should we choose the highest-stakes, most torqued hour of the season? The one that was the most fun to watch? The one with the most ambitious directing choices? In half-hours, you might think it is obvious to go for the funniest episodes, but many people think the best way to win is to choose drama over laughs. Yes, even for a comedy.

This is where the fights come in. And just as in any election, everyone has a theory about what's most likely to sway the voter. As with all things television and politics, this truism stands: Nobody knows anything. But as deeply as we may understand that, it doesn't stop

any of us from having strongly held opinions. One of the things I enjoy so much about working in television is how frequently it comes down to a bunch of smart, passionate people arguing over their gut feelings.

Difficult as the choices might be, if there's a producer-creator who feels strongly, I firmly believe their opinion should prevail. It's their artistic judgment that is being evaluated, and they're the ones who are going to win the awards.

In the end, how much impact does the selection of one episode make? Probably just a little, but in the competitive TV environment we live in today, maybe "just a little" is what makes all the difference.

David Nevins is president and CEO of Showtime Networks.

This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.