Emmys: Does the New Voting Process Mean 'Louie' Will Finally Beat 'Modern Family'?

Louie S05E01 Still - H 2015
KC Bailey/FX

Louie S05E01 Still - H 2015

This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

For many years prior to 2015, unbeknownst to the vast majority of people who tuned in to watch the annual Emmys telecast, Emmy winners were determined by only a miniscule percentage of the TV Academy's membership. Volunteers from its ranks would serve on so-called "Blue Ribbon panels," sometimes numbering only a few dozen members, that were empowered to vote on behalf of a collective that now numbers about 19,000. A volunteer could serve on up to four panels, two dealing with programs and two related to their specific "peer group" (acting, writing, etc.). One independent analysis calculated that it was possible to win an acting Emmy with as few as 12 No. 1 votes (panelists ranked every nominee in a category).

The reason this process made sense, the TV Academy maintained, was that few of its members were able or willing to devote the time and attention necessary to fairly judge all of the nominees. Before 2009, even nominees were determined by panels that would winnow down the 10 shows or people that received the most votes from the larger membership to five finalists.

But volunteer panels predominantly attract older members, who tend to be less busy professionally and make more conservative choices, which might explain why the TV Academy has faced criticism for decades for doing just that. The lead comedy actress Emmy rotated among the stars of The Golden Girls during the '80s. And in 1996, when the majority of acting winners were seniors, The Advocate called it "Old Fart Year at the Emmys," noting that "the patented postmortem chat among those in the industry was on how the blue-ribbon panels … must have been the oldest blue-ribbon panels in the history of television."

Now change is in the air: In February, the TV Academy — under the leadership of chairman and CEO Bruce Rosenblum, who will be stepping down from his post at year's end — announced that it has put a stop to this form of elitism. 

"In an effort to increase member participation in the voting process and to take advantage of the Academy's extension of online voting to both rounds," the organization said in a statement, "all voters eligible to vote in a category's nominating round are now eligible to vote in that category's final round, so long as they meet two additional requirements: Much like the former Blue Ribbon panel process, voters must watch the required submitted material online and attest to no specific conflicts of interest with the nominees."

In subsequent interviews and conversations, people close to the TV Academy, including Rosenblum, have suggested another reason for this change: putting an end to the same shows and people repeatedly winning (i.e. Modern Family and its stars, The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons, The Amazing Race) and not winning (Netflix, for example, has been awarded only one prize on the telecast, and no other streaming provider ever has won one).

But will the rule change actually have its intended effect?

It is far from certain that opening up final-round voting to thousands more people will produce a less objectionable list of winners. The masses tend to make populist choices that, in this context, could mean even more awards for shows and stars from broadcast networks.

Just look at the Nielsen ratings, which still are dominated by shows that air on CBS, NBC and ABC, even while far more critically acclaimed work is being done on cable and streaming outlets. Or look at what's happened since the film Academy changed its rules to enable all of its members to weigh in on the Oscars for best documentary feature (three years ago) and best foreign-language film (two years ago): Many members only watched the nominees that generated the most buzz and/or centered on widely appealing subject matter (music, muckraking, etc.), resulting, in some cases, in different winners than would have been chosen by a smaller group who actually had watched all of the nominees.

However, before one assumes that the full membership of the TV Academy, represented by its various peer groups, will show similarly populist leanings, one must keep in mind that these same groups have been responsible since 2009 for picking Emmy nominees that have been far more diverse than Emmy winners. If this rule change has that same effect on the sorts of shows and people awarded Emmy wins — in other words, if new shows like Netflix's Bloodline or Amazon's Transparent or perennial bridesmaids like HBO's Game of Thrones or FX's Louie take home major prizes — then the TV Academy, and its heretofore critics, will know it made the right move.