Emmy music rules questioned

Everybody complains about the Emmys. It’s become a favorite Hollywood pastime, especially in August and September while the voting is taking place and the statues are awarded.

In the case of the music Emmys, two years ago officials attempted to rectify what they saw as flaws in the nominating procedure by creating a new system. The result is still more controversy and a call by some — even within the Academy hierarchy itself — to return to the old system.

Music Emmys are awarded in five categories: music composition for a series, music composition for a miniseries or a special, music direction, music and lyrics, and main-title theme music.

Under the old system, members were mailed a long list of programs and scores submitted for nomination (this year, there were nearly 250). Then they chose five shows they felt were worthy of the award, and once the numbers were tallied up, those became the nominees. This is the system followed by most branches in the TV Academy.

Some felt that this encouraged members to vote for themselves and their friends, and that there was no way to know if anyone nominating actually saw the shows or heard the scores. Many sent out audiotapes of their music in hopes of receiving a nomination (which was expensive, some argued, and which bothered some members who didn’t like getting dozens of tapes in the mail).

Even more troubling to music-branch officials was the fact that, in a recent year, only about a fourth of their 230 members bothered to return the nomination ballot.

In 1994, composer Ron Grant (“Knots Landing”), then a member of the music branch’s executive peer-group committee and now a governor, came up with a system designed to correct these problems. The idea was to create nominating committees who would screen every show submitted for nomination, then rate them according to specific criteria (relevance, dramatic impact, uniqueness of style, quality of composition).

The Academy’s awards committee and board of governors approved the concept in late 1995, and it has now been in effect for two seasons. This year, according to Grant, every show submitted was screened by four people; their accumulated numbers resulted in the five nominees in each category (which were then judged in the traditional “blue-ribbon panel” manner to decide the winners).

“It’s certainly a better way,” says former governor and four-time Emmy winner James DiPasquale (“The Shell Seekers”), “because we can at least assure everybody that their work has been seen. But I must say that in some instances, there have been some strange results.” Grant contends that while the new system isn’t perfect, it’s still a more honest appraisal of the season’s musical output.

Not everyone is convinced. Last year, Ernst & Young (the Academy’s accounting firm) recommended that the branch return to the old system. A letter from Ernst & Young stated that “we are not comfortable with the method used by the music branch this year. While the changes were made with good intentions, they had the inadvertent effect of increasing the subjectivity and risk of bias of the voting process.”

Grant denies that this was the result. He says subjectivity is curbed by the point scale that committee members must follow, and that he has asked the accountants to alert the governors to “any unusual voting patterns” that might be designed to “sabotage” a potential nominee. In that way, the show can be reviewed by a second panel to ensure getting a fair shake. This was done in one instance last year.

Says awards director John Leverence: “There’s no better way to have an informed electorate than to have those people who are casting votes actually having seen the achievement. Philosophically, I am of the opinion that it’s a very good way to go.”

However, he adds, “in terms of implementation, the mechanics are definitely very complex.” Owing to the number of screeners (80 this year) and the hundreds of tapes that must be sent out, “it’s a very labor-intensive situation for the Academy administration.”

Some members are upset that the procedure was implemented without even consulting the branch. “It was never explained to the members, much less approved by the members. It was thrust upon us,” says one Emmy-winning composer who asked not to be identified.

“A committee of three (the screening number the first year) is way too small a sample. A bigger problem is they don’t see all the entries. They’re grading on some kind of supposedly objective scale where one guy’s 85 is the same as the next guy’s 85. That’s nonsense. You can talk about that in figure skating or gymnastics, but the judges there see all the competitors.”

Two-time Emmy winner Don Davis (“Beauty and the Beast” and “seaQuest DSV”) urges a return to the old system. He enjoyed receiving and listening to the tapes. “I discovered a lot of composers and scores that I certainly would not have been aware of otherwise,” he says, adding, “I welcomed the opportunity to hear my colleagues’ work in a setting that wasn’t obscured by sound effects and dialogue.”

Because nominating committee members only see a handful of shows, Davis argues, they inevitably compare them against each other. “So if he happens to get five mediocre videocassettes, he’s rating them against each other and not against the general standard. By the same token, if he got a batch of excellent tapes he would tend to rate them lower than he normally would. In both cases, it’s damaging to the good scores and it’s an advantage to the mediocrity.”

Grant says that he has heard no real complaints about the new system and that he would like to increase the number of panelists who see each show to six if possible. Davis thinks simpler was better. “In the old system, each member would vote for five projects that he thought were worthy of an award. So that every vote that came in was for something that someone thought could, or should, get the award. I didn’t vote for anything that I didn’t think ought to win. And if I didn’t think anything should win, I didn’t vote for anything.”

Academy President Meryl Marshall calls the new procedure “a very exciting innovation” and “a valuable approach to the awards process.” She isn’t sure that it can be applied to every branch. “Because it is cumbersome from an administrative standpoint, and it’s very labor intensive, it needs to be very carefully examined on a category-by-category basis,” she says.

About the complaints, she adds, “It would be heaven if everybody could hear everything and make the decision. The key is to get as many members involved in this process as possible. There is opportunity to participate.”

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