Should the top drama category at the Emmys be expanded? The answer from many in the biz is a resounding yes. After all, we are living in a time of smallscreen riches. The elite competition has been so tough and so strong — from AMC’s gritty contemporary meth opera “Breaking Bad” to PBS’ high-brow period soap “Downton Abbey” to the new tough guys on the block at HBO’s “True Detective” — that it makes sense to expand from six to 10 nominees.
“It’s absolutely the time to consider whether to expand or not,” says Roma Khanna, president, Television Group & Digital, MGM, which produces History’s drama series “Vikings” and FX’s miniseries “Fargo.” “The number of phenomenal shows in the marketplace right now is more than we’ve ever seen, and the number of outlets has increased.”
Mordecai Wiczyk, co-CEO of Media Rights Capital, which produced Netflix’s Emmy-nominated “House of Cards,” agrees: “There’s more excellent work being done today than in the past. It’s a direct result of more shows being made. It’s systemic. It would stand to reason that we would want to have more nominees.”
For a little perspective, 25 years ago, in 1989, the five nominees for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama were split between the three networks. CBS had two shows, “Wiseguy” and “Beauty and the Beast,” while ABC had two: “China Beach” and “thirtysomething.” NBC took home the statuette with its sole nominee, “LA Law.” No cable. No Internet streaming. And not even PBS cracked the pack, even though it is the only broadcast network this year with a nominee, “Downton Abbey.”
Khanna and Wiczyk concur: there is a radical shift in terms of quantity and quality — and the two are linked in creating a perfect storm for television.
Kerry Ehrin, executive producer of A&E’s psychological drama “Bates Motel,” agrees. “It is such a golden age (of television) and the thing that’s tricky is that there are so many different kinds of shows that it’s hard to compare them in a way — from genre shows to historical epics,” she says. “It feels like expanding might actually give room to recognize the different genres that are out there.”
The ever-increasing growth of excellence in television calls for a change similar to the Oscars, which expanded to 10 best picture nominees for 2009. While that was not entirely to everyone’s satisfaction, the Television Academy has a different goal: accommodating an influx of quality dramas from a wide variety of sources — network, cable and streaming.
“There are a number of things happening at once, resulting in this world of wonderful television,” Khanna says. “First and foremost, consider the expansion and fragmentation of storytelling outlets. This growth allows for a volume of stories not only aimed at broad audiences but also to more targeted audiences, which is the nature of cable or Internet.”
It’s a new era that allows for bold content that skirts the broadest audience and is “not necessarily afraid of alienating certain audiences in exchange for becoming a passion piece for other audiences,” she says. And, not coincidentally, viewers have also changed with the times. “The overarching willingness of audiences across the world is to be challenged, to be brought stories and consume stories that are outside of their regular world. ‘Vikings’ is one of many examples of a show that delivers high quality within the historical genre of love, sex and power, providing a setting for audiences seeking an immersive experience they have not seen before.”
Despite these global shifts, not everybody agrees that the Television Academy should follow the Oscars in the best drama category.
“I’m against the 10,” says New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “Once you go beyond five or six you run into the ‘Well, you nominated this, why not this?’ phenomenon. And suddenly you’re nominating things more for political reasons than because they really have a shot at winning. If there were 10 nominees, ‘Hannibal’ or ‘The Americans’ would be in the drama category, but what would be the point? It’s almost cooler that they weren’t nominated.”
However, Zoller Seitz praises the TV Academy because the organization “has responded to the expansion quite well, actually. They let Netflix and other streaming services compete almost immediately, despite the fact that they force you to ask questions like, ‘What is television? Does it have to be something that’s shown on a screen hanging on your wall or on a little cathode ray tube?’ They’re much more open to changes than the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They let cable compete in the ’90s, before cable was really a serious artistic threat to the networks in the way that it now definitely is.”
To compound matters, the rules for the best drama category are complex in their own right. “There was a rule that came in this year that’s a little bit complicated,” says John Leverence, the Television Academy’s senior vice president for awards, referring to the revised 2% rule, which comes into play during the popular vote when two nominees are within 2% of each other. In this case, both will be nominated, upping the number of contenders in the category.
“The 2% rule generally applies to all categories where there are an ideal five nominations,” Leverence says. “Among those categories where there are an ideal six nominations, the 2% rule applies only to drama series and comedy series. In 2013 there were seven nominations in lead actress in a drama series, and there was a flat-footed tie for sixth place.”
Given this kind of complicated rule-making, the TV Academy could face problems coping with an expansion from six to a possible seven to a distant 10 slots.
And yet it may simply have to adapt. Given the exponential growth, and the variety of dramatic offerings, and the radical changes in delivery systems, adding four more slots, for a total of 10 like the Oscars, seems inevitable. It would make the Emmy race a more compelling and interesting one, a race that would more accurately reflect the place of smallscreen entertainment in the pop culture zeitgeist.
Dave Nemetz, deputy editor, Yahoo TV, had an even more radical suggestion. “It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the TV Academy to split the best drama and comedy categories into two — cable and broadcast — so quality broadcast shows like ‘The Good Wife,’ ‘Hannibal’ and ‘The Mindy Project’ could get their due,” he says.
Per Khanna, this would be like stuffing the genie back in the bottle. “I don’t think that makes sense because you’re seeing great television from both cable and network, like ‘The Good Wife’ or ‘The Blacklist’ that maybe should have been included,” she says. “It’s no longer about the outlet and the audience, it’s about the relationship between the audience and the content … and that exists across platforms. That might be FX or a broadcast network or Netflix. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the story — and the drama.”