The easiest way to get an Emmy nomination is to have already gotten an Emmy nomination, which is why some quarters of the TV Academy have been pushing for a return of the new series award, last seen in the early ’70s.
This, supporters reason, would help alleviate one of the biggest problems with Emmys, which is, according to both critics and some Academy members, the repetition of nominees and winners. A show or actor’s first nomination can be like tenure. Once they’re in, it’s almost impossible to get rid of them until they retire, making it difficult for newcomers to crack the list and spice up the telecast.
So far, the Academy still hadn’t decided whether there would be room in this year’s telecast for a new series award. (Academy board members were due to meet on May 18 to discuss business, but a source at the Academy suggested this matter wouldn’t be decided until sometime this month.) But if ever there was a year where the category wasn’t needed, this is it.
If the category were to be reinstated, what would be the most likely nominees? “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “House” would seem to be high on voters’ minds, but all may get nominated in the traditional categories anyway.
While it seems like freshmen have a hard time getting major nominations, that’s often not the case. Most of the signature series of the past few decades have been recognized by the Academy from year one, occasionally with record-breaking nomination totals. Sometimes, it’s because the show is a huge ratings hit like “ER” (23 noms its first year). Sometimes, the show is a major media phenomenon, such as “Hill Street Blues” (21). Sometimes, it’s both: “NYPD Blue” (27).
This season has been the first since the reality boom where several new scripted series were not only early hits, but critically lavished as well. Couple that with the absence of “The Sopranos” in the drama categories (where “Lost” and “House” would compete) and the pathetic state of the sitcom (“Housewives” has been submitted as a comedy), and you have three new, high-profile series that could keep the telecast from feeling stale .
At best, the return of the new show award might lead to a nomination for a skein such as UPN’s “Veronica Mars,” the kind of low-rated critical darling that would have trouble getting noticed in the bigger categories. But a more popular show like “Housewives” would likely win in the end.
The new show award has only been used a handful of times in the Academy’s history, mainly in the mid-’50s and early ’70s. Past winners have included “Make Room for Daddy,” “Playhouse 90,” “Columbo” and “All in the Family.” The latter also won the comedy award that year, and when the new show award was last presented in 1973, it went to the “Masterpiece Theater” production of “Elizabeth R,” which was also named that year’s best drama.
That kind of redundancy could happen again if, say, “Housewives” triumphed in the reinstated new show award and then won comedy series.
The problem with getting new blood into the Emmys has less to do with the categories than the nominating process. The Academy prides itself on having the only major showbiz award where the voters are required to watch the programs in question, either at weekend screenings or through tapes and DVDs sent to volunteering members’ homes.
No such requirement exists in the nomination stage. While studios send out screeners, few working members have time to watch them, let alone to keep up with primetime on a regular basis. In many cases, the nominations are made blindly by people selecting familiar names — either of a previous nominee or a show or actor that’s been written and talked about a lot in the past year.
The likes of “Housewives” would get plenty of Emmy love regardless of the status of the new program award. But if the Academy wants to make it easier for great young series to be recognized the nomination process would have to be changed, perhaps to a blue-ribbon nominating panel that agrees to watch samples of every show or actor submitted in various categories.
The easiest way to get an Emmy nomination shouldn’t be having already been nominated in the past; it should be doing quality work. Bringing back the new show award would be a cosmetic change, and in a year like this, an unnoticeable one.
(Alan Sepinwall is the TV critic for the Newark Star-Ledger.)