Emmys: Changes in Eligibility Rules Ignite Category Confusion

In the era of Peak TV, the academy's multitude of categories can create unusual bedfellows, like James Corden and Hannah Gadsby competing against Beyoncé and Bruce Springsteen.
Illustration by: Richard A. Chance

In a quest to recognize the massive quantity and variety of programming in Peak TV, the TV Academy has created so many categories that they have to be presented over three nights, two known as the Primetime Creative Arts Emmys (recognizing mostly technical and crafts work) and the third as the Primetime Emmys. Some categories are incredibly specific, such as makeup for a multicamera series or special (non-prosthetic); others, like drama series, are straightforward. But there is a lot of gray area in between, within which Emmy hopefuls seek their strongest position, resulting in some situations that may seem puzzling.

Consider Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. Season one won best drama series in 2017, season two was nominated in 2018 and season three, which drops June 5, won't be eligible until 2020 because the minimum number of episodes to qualify will not have been released in time. And yet, even as the third season rolls out, the second will again be on the ballot in some categories, because that season's final three episodes came after last year's voting. Per the TV Academy's "hanging episodes" rules, those three are now eligible — not for categories that require a season's worth of episodes, but in others like directing, writing, guest acting and several technical slots.

Showtime's Who Is America? will be pushed for variety sketch series, but star Sacha Baron Cohen will compete for best actor in a comedy series. This is allowed because there is no longer a specific category for variety performers. Indeed, just last year, NBC's Saturday Night Live won best variety sketch series, while five of its castmembers received noms for supporting acting in a comedy series.

The TV movie category is as out there as any in that its past three winners — Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, Black Mirror: San Junipero and Black Mirror: USS Callister — were not TV movies. The rules allow for a limited series to be submitted in its entirety as a limited series — or to enter one installment as a TV movie, as long as the installment runs at least 75 minutes (a requirement added this year).

A number of episodic anthology series will compete as TV movies, among them Amazon's The Romanoffs: End of the Line. Netflix argues that Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is a film as opposed to an installment from the series' most recent season, but the only real difference is that Bandersnatch viewers were able to pick from several endings. So which version of Bandersnatch will be on the ballot? Netflix tells THR that it submitted an 83-minute one featuring Charlie Brooker's handpicked ending.

Interestingly, another episodic anthology series, CBS All Access' The Twilight Zone, will not compete as a limited series or a TV movie. None of its installments runs 75 minutes or longer, precluding the latter option, and the company's attempt to enter it as a limited series was rejected by the Academy, which felt that it also does not meet the requirements of the limited series category, and should therefore compete as a drama series. And then there are the seasonal anthology series. The Academy deemed the most recent seasons of American Horror Story and The Sinner, which heretofore competed as limited series, to be drama series, because of "continuous story threads, characters and actors" from previous seasons.

Before last year's Emmys, the variety special race was divided into two categories, prerecorded and live — but it may be time for another split. Eligible in the prerecorded category are stand-up comedy specials; CBS' Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool (Corden's Carpool Karaoke specials won the unified variety special category in 2016 and '17); the concert films Springsteen on Broadway, Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé and Taylor Swift: Reputation Stadium Tour and the reunion show Still Laugh-In: The Stars Celebrate, all from Netflix; and two Bill Maher specials. Amazon's Guava Island isn't eligible only because Donald Glover reportedly didn't want it submitted.

The live variety special category will include Rent: Live, even if it didn't air entirely live due to a performer's last-minute injury, but expected to dominate is ABC's late-breaking Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear's All in the Family and The Jeffersons, which garnered excellent ratings. Now try to follow this: Talent from prerecorded and live variety specials (think The Jeffersons' Marla Gibbs) can compete in the limited series/TV movie acting categories, while commentators on variety talk series who appeared in less than 50 percent of a season's episodes (say, Roy Wood, Jr. of The Daily Show With Trevor Noah) can enter in guest acting in a comedy series categories.

And then there's the An Emmy for Megan rule. Last year, Megan Amram's web series, which chronicled her effort to win an Emmy by meeting minimum eligibility requirements, wound up with two noms. The TV Academy subsequently implemented a "new vetting procedure to identify Emmy-competitive entries in the shortform categories on nomination-round ballots."

Hopefuls will have to get even more creative this year!

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