While audiences are enjoying what’s arguably known as the next Golden Age of Television, the TV Academy has been faced with increasingly blurred lines in terms of the shows in the Emmy contest. As eight- and 13-episode cable dramas compete with 22-episode broadcast series, creators and execs are wondering if the Academy’s rules still make sense, particularly when some series can be eligible in two potential categories.
After all, maintaining high quality over 22 episodes is much more difficult, and broadcasters have to appeal to a wider audience over the course of a season. With shorter shooting schedules, cablers have the added ability to attract top-tier talent, which always helps in gaining the attention of Emmy voters.
“It’s very hard to make consistently fantastic television under any circumstances,” says FX Networks CEO John Landgraf. “Clearly, the more episodes you’re making, the more likely that you’re going to dilute the quality of the show. That’s just the reality.”
For now, the TV Academy says the rules are clear: Series producers can determine the category in which they’ll compete when shows are eligible in multiple categories. Recent examples include PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” which competed in the miniseries category in its first season, then switched to drama; HBO’s “True Detective,” an eight-episode show that was widely considered a miniseries but will compete in drama; and FX’s “American Horror Story,” an ongoing anthology series that competes in miniseries rather than drama.
“The Emmy Awards recognize excellence based on the quality of content, regardless of the number of eligible episodes,” the TV Academy said in a statement to Variety. “As it pertains to the outstanding series categories, the Academy is consistent with the various guilds in the definition of what constitutes a series.”
However, cable series have dominated the Emmys for so long now that some insiders are asking if it’s even fair to compare shows with such different artistic concerns and business models.
“Network obviously has to appeal to a wider group of people to stay on the air, which sometimes may (mean) lower-brow choices,” says CBS’ “The Good Wife” executive producer Robert King. “I do think cable is in the business of catering to awards in a way that makes it good for the fans—makes it good for me as a fan—but also sometimes shouts down anything being done by network.”
“The Good Wife,” a critical favorite with a strong fan base, was the only broadcast network drama to get an Emmy nom in 2011 (“Friday Night Lights” was also nominated that year, but it had moved from NBC to DirecTV), and no network drama has been nominated since (the last network series to win best drama was Fox’s “24” in 2006).
But the answer is not segregating network and cable at the Emmys, Landgraf says.
“There used to be something called the CableACE Awards,” Landgraf says. “The Emmys were the prize, and the CableACE Awards were the booby prize. Imagine a circumstance now where you separate broadcast from cable: Which is going to be the more prestigious award? Does broadcast really want to be put in a second tier so they can get a second-tier award the way cable used to? I don’t think so. Ultimately, you have to just say what’s the best drama or best comedy or best miniseries on television.”
Nevertheless, some showrunners would welcome a change in categories at the Emmys. “Precisely because the television landscape has changed, the Emmys should be broken down into more categories so that more work can be acknowledged,” says Michael Hirst, creator of History’s “Vikings.”
“Good Wife” exec producer Michelle King also thinks different categories make sense.
“The Olympics are not a bad way to think about this,” she says. “You don’t need to create different games to say that a marathon is judged differently than a sprint. There (are) just simply different categories. You might think in terms of x-number of episodes or fewer is one type of category, and above (that) is a different category.”
In a nod to prevalent genre-crossing in primetime, one studio insider suggests categorizing shows by run time, rather than separating drama and comedy.
“Maybe Jenji Kohan (‘Orange Is the New Black,’ ‘Weeds’) was right when she said the Emmy categories need to change—have a 30-minute and an hourlong category,” the insider says. “There are plenty of examples of 30-minute shows that get entered into comedy that aren’t funny.”
No matter how the Emmys change — or stay exactly the same — what once was perceived as the “typical” broadcast drama is also changing, with series like NBC’s “The Blacklist” and “Hannibal,” Fox’s “The Following” and “The Good Wife” pushing boundaries in a way that used to be reserved for cable. But shorter orders will still most likely provide the best way to attract Emmy voters.
“Broadcasters are responding to the new reality by producing many more shows with short orders,” Landgraf points out. “Look, if you want to make a commercial juggernaut and you want to make 22 episodes a year and you want the money and you want the syndication, then deal with the fact that you’re putting handcuffs on your creatives to make it harder for them to match in quality. If you want to compete in quality, then make fewer episodes and make a better show.”
Hirst, who also created Showtime’s “The Tudors,” agrees that fewer episodes boost quality.
“I’ve got the whole season in my head. I couldn’t keep 22, 24 episodes in my head,” he says. “There are lots of advantages to having shorter seasons; each episode of ‘Vikings’ is like a little movie.”
The bottom line is that broadcast, cable and streaming services are giving Emmy voters more original content to choose from than ever before, which means it’s even harder to get their attention when they’re filling out ballots.
“Emmy voters are confronted with how many hundreds of dramatic series that they have to look at, and I think there tends to be a groundswell around a few familiar faces,” says Gale Anne Hurd, producer of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”
Adds Landgraf: “There are going to be about 350 scripted original series in American television aired this calendar year. There is no human being alive who will watch every one or even 60% of those. It literally would have to be your full-time job seven days a week, 365 days a year. And I’m not even sure you could do it then.”
Despite the daunting challenge for voters, awards remain a great motivator for the industry.
“I’m just a fan of what is going on in TV right now,” says “Good Wife’s” Robert King. “The awards make everybody want to do better work.”