The TV Academy Was Smart to Ban Oscar Nominees From Emmys, But Should Go Further

Citizenfour, What Happened Miss Simone, Cartel Land, Strong Island and RBG- Photofest - Publicity - Split - H 2020
Photofest; Netflix; Photofest; Netflix; Photofest

With the line separating film from TV blurrier than ever, the TV Academy should be commended for taking steps to clarify the difference, as it did Thursday in announcing that, starting in March 2021, projects that have received an Oscar nomination will no longer be eligible for an Emmy nomination. In other words, the next set of Oscar nominees (currently scheduled to be announced next January) will be ineligible to join the first set of Emmy nominees announced after that (scheduled to be announced in July 2021).

In my opinion, however, the TV Academy did not go far enough.

At present, a project that screens in movie theaters for a week is eligible for Oscars and also, if it subsequently airs on TV, for Emmys, too (this has heretofore manifested itself almost exclusively with documentaries). However, a project that airs on TV before it screens in theaters is not eligible for Oscars (this order of events rarely happens because movie theaters don't like to show, and moviegoers don't like to pay for, things that were previously available for free).

But why is the TV Academy agreeable to accepting any project that entered another contest first? Rather than disqualifying from the Emmys only projects that have already received an Oscar nomination, it should disqualify from the Emmys any project that even went through the process of qualifying to receive an Oscar nomination — that project clearly wants to be seen as a film as much as one that was nominated.

And besides, why should a project that deserved an Oscar nomination but for inexplicable reasons didn't get one, such as 2017's Jane, be Emmy-eligible, but another project that deserved an Oscar nomination and did get one, such as 2017's Icarus, not be? Both were documentaries that received substantial theatrical releases before going on TV, and should therefore be regarded as films, period.

If there is to be anything distinguishing the Oscars from the Emmys, then creators will have to pick a lane for their projects at the outset. This would benefit all parties.

If a doc is required to receive a proper theatrical release and to risk being Emmy-ineligible in order to be Oscar-eligible, only the most outstanding docs would be entered for Oscars, as opposed to the hundreds that are currently submitted each year by creators who see no downside to throwing their hat in the ring. This would certainly be appreciated by the film Academy's doc branch members, who are charged with picking a shortlist and nominees, but almost none of whom have the time to watch anywhere close to all of the docs that are entered.

Moreover, projects that were truly made for TV — the medium the Emmys are supposed to celebrate — would have a much better shot at landing nominations at the Emmys, which recognizes docs in several categories. Creators and distributors can enter a doc for best documentary/nonfiction special (one-part or two-part docs selected by the large documentary peer group) or exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking (selected by a small jury on the basis of the creator's "expressed vision, compelling power of storytelling, artistry or innovation of craft, and the capacity to inform, transport, impact, enlighten, and create a moving and indelible work that elevates the art of documentary filmmaking"); if the exceptional merit jury feels a submitted doc does not meet all of its criteria, it kicks it back into the doc/nonfiction special pool. Additionally, docs are eligible in a number of other categories like nonfiction direction, writing, cinematography and sound mixing.

The rule change announced Thursday does little to discourage swimming in both lanes. Most creators and distributors would still prefer the prestige and profits that come with an Oscar nom over those that come with an Emmy nom, and will therefore risk losing their Emmy eligibility should their project be Oscar-nominated. Most projects, however, won't be, and those creators will then enter the Emmy race, too.

It is true that Thursday's rule change, had it been in place in recent years, would have rendered a number of recent best documentary feature Oscar nominees (and winners) turned Emmy nominees (and winners) ineligible for the latter. Consider the last five years...

In 2019, four of the five Oscar nominees received major Emmy recognition: Free Solo, which won the Oscar, won all seven Emmys for which it was nominated (which, oddly enough, did not include best doc/nonfiction special or exceptional merit); Oscar nominee RBG won the exceptional merit Emmy over a field that included fellow Oscar nominee Hale County This Morning, This Evening; and Oscar nominee Minding the Gap was nominated for the best doc/nonfiction special Emmy.

In 2018, Icarus, which won the Oscar, was nominated for best doc/nonfiction special; and Oscar nominee Strong Island won exceptional merit.

In 2017, O.J.: Made in America, which won the Oscar, was nominated for exceptional merit (alongside best documentary short Oscar winner The White Helmets); and Oscar nominee 13th was nominated for best doc/nonfiction special.

In 2016, Oscar nominee What Happened, Miss Simone? won best doc/nonfictional special; and Oscar nominee Cartel Land won exceptional merit over fellow Oscar nominee Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom.

And in 2015, Citizenfour, which won the Oscar, won exceptional merit; Oscar nominee Virunga was nominated for best doc/nonfiction special; and Oscar nominee Last Days in Vietnam was nominated for best nonfiction writing.

This level of overlap is patently ridiculous. A doc is either a film doc or a TV doc, not both — and, in 2020, the latter is no less prestigious than the former. If the two academies would like to remain relevant and at least somewhat delay the fate that former film Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and former TV Academy president Hayma Washington both told me last year they think is inevitable — a merging of the two academies — then they had better put even more daylight between them than Thursday's rule change does.