Maybe some TV writers don’t care about winning an Emmy, but it’s hard to ignore the attraction: the intrinsic pride and glory, plus an express train to better pay, visibility, hireability or all of the above.
Still, there’s an unspoken glitch in the Emmy writing categories for scripted series. Each year, awards go to individual writers or writing teams from a given episode. But many episodes aren’t written by individuals or duos — they’re written by entire staffs.
“On our show,” says “30 Rock” creator Tina Fey, “our staff breaks stories together and puts them onto index cards. Then, the episode is assigned to an individual writer or team, who takes the cards and writes the outline. The person who writes the outline writes the writer’s draft … then the draft comes back and is tabled by all the writers.”
This is how TV works. Writers know it. Producers know it. The Television Academy knows it. Yet the Emmys implicitly ignore all these extra staff contributions.
“Eligibility is based on credits the show sends us for each episode (determined by series producers, along with the Writers Guild),” says TV Acad senior veep of awards John Leverence. “When we hand out Emmys, we trust the producer (as to) whom we should properly hand them to.”
Of course, assigning individual credit makes sense for bookkeeping purposes, but does it make sense when rewarding collaboration, given the stakes?
“Winning — or even being nominated for — an Emmy can have a real and immediate impact on a career,” says UTA lit agent Joel Begleiter.
Last year, the Emmys nommed Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman of “Damages” for their pilot, a rare instance devoid of authorship questions. However, pilots are often a small fraction of a given year’s writing nominees. Only 11 of the past 50 have been pilots, and some years not a single pilot makes the cut.
“It becomes a … somewhat impossible task to parse out everyone’s contribution,” says Glenn Kessler. “In a show like ours, when every episode is predicated on a story that comes before it … all the pieces need to fit. You don’t have the luxury of going off and working independently.”
“It’s sometimes unfair,” adds Emmy-winning “House” creator David Shore. “The greater unfairness is that we don’t know when it’s unfair and when it’s fair.”
Which leaves many writers wondering if there’s a better way.
“It’s nice to acknowledge the risk someone takes for putting their name on something,” says “30 Rock” exec producer Robert Carlock, but “a reward that rewards the staff would probably be a more accurate reflection.”
Some writers recommend borrowing a page from the Writers Guild Awards, which acknowledge entire staffs. Others offer as a model the Humanitas Awards, which — up until last year — rewarded credited writers with a check, then gave plaques to the rest of the staff.
And as Fey points out, the Academy already acknowledges staffs of VMC (variety-music-comedy) shows like “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show.” Why not do the same with episodic programs?
“We’ve had (that) VMC rule in place for probably 20 years,” says Leverence. “Nobody has ever mentioned the possibility of expanding that rule into (other) series. It might be a good thing to discuss.”
Gene Stupinsky, a 2008 Emmy nominee from “The Office,” has his own ideas for change, but isn’t sure they’re necessary.
“Writers … who have Emmys are, by and large, excellent writers,” he says. “I’m sure there are writers who get Emmys who didn’t deserve it, but I don’t know any of them.”