For years, the Emmy judging process in the music categories was decried as biased against newcomers, a “popularity contest” in which, year after year, the same composers were nominated and inevitably won.

No more. Today the 360-member TV Academy music branch has the most rigorous voting process in the entire Academy, one in which every single entry is viewed and judged by a minimum of six fellow branch members — and which presumably has leveled the playing field to give others a chance at Emmy gold.

The result is that 23 of the 41 nominees in the five music categories are first-timers, ranging from A-list film composers (Alan Silvestri for “Cosmos”) and top music producers (T Bone Burnett for “True Detective”) to busy TV composers (James Levine for “American Horror Story: Coven”) and little-known songwriters (on everything from “Saturday Night Live” to Disney Channel and Comedy Central series).

“It’s probably the fairest system that exists in any of the academies,” says longtime music-branch governor Ian Fraser. “The process is working fairly well, although I’m sure all of our judges wish that some of the entrants would set a higher standard for themselves,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to the handful of eye-rolling entries that come in every year.
The system, devised in 1995 by former Acad governor Ron Grant and tweaked over the years since then, is unlike any other in the Emmy process.
“One of those refinements was that every entrant has to agree to judge as a condition of entry,” Fraser says. “This greatly expanded our judging pool, after years of relying solely on volunteers.”

Entrants can’t judge in the category they’ve entered, he says, “and since this rule has been in place we have had enthusiastic participation from all of our judges, including many of the biggest names in the business.”

In fact, the Acad says, there were 76 entries in the series-underscore category, 20 more than last year; 40 in the movie/miniseries underscore category, up five from 2013; 53 in the song category, up by 18; and 35 in the theme category, 10 more than last year. The 18 music-direction entries matched the previous year’s total.

Entries in three of the five categories (series underscore, movie/mini underscore, music direction) are judged at home by branch members who are each given up to 10 hours of TV to watch. The song and theme categories are judged at a single screening of all the entries at once.

While nominations for music from such popular series as “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards” and “Fargo” might have been predicted, nominations for themes like “Magic City” (a canceled Starz series) or “The Spoils of Babylon” (an obscure IFC sendup of ’70s minis) could not.

“There is very little of this kind of screening within the nominating process (in other branches),” says TV Acad senior VP John Leverence, who oversees the Emmys. “It’s the exception rather than the rule. In general, we don’t have that kind of panel-centric sort of work,” but “we are heading in that direction. Music has been the pioneer. It continues to light the path for the other peer groups.”

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