As TV Landscape Becomes More Complex, Emmy Nominations’ Snubs Come With the Territory

Emmy snubs
Marco Melgrati for Variety

Winston Churchill famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” And the Emmys might very well be the worst TV awards ever devised, except perhaps for the rest of them.

Nominations for the 67th annual Emmy Awards surely had something to offend everyone. The outrages ranged from legitimately puzzling oversights (CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and “The Affair’s” Ruth Wilson among them) to those where the righteous fury probably had as much to do with pumping up Web traffic (“Empire” snubbed! “Scandal” slighted!) as anything else.

But honestly, what would those critics prefer? The Golden Globes, an organization with a small and shadowy body of voters, and a colorfully speckled history? Granted, the Emmys have inherent biases against genre shows, but the Globes have their own unique quirks, including an inordinate penchant for European talent and stars with high Q scores.

Even setting those considerations aside, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. thinks so little of television that it lumps every actor who isn’t a lead into a “supporting” category that encompasses series, movies and miniseries. Last year, that meant pitting performers from “American Horror Story,” “Downton Abbey,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “True Detective” and the sitcom “Mom” against each other on one side, and a miniseries, two dramas and movie on the other.

Nobody’s immune from awards-show screwups, or at least oddities. Consider the Television Critics Assn. — a group that, one would think, has a pretty good handle on the medium. Yet its nominations awkwardly tossed in HBO’s docuseries “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst” among the movies, miniseries and specials, alongside three scripted miniseries and HBO’s “Bessie.”

As for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, its coveted honor for ensemble casts seemed influenced heavily by sheer size in honoring “Downton Abbey” and “Orange Is the New Black” – the latter a program that the Emmys have reclassified (correctly, many would argue) as a drama.

This isn’t intended to pick on other awards shows, but merely to expose the unavoidable imperfections that are part of this far-from-scientific process, one increasingly complicated by the encroachment of new players, with Netflix and now Amazon making significant inroads. And while that might be nettlesome to fans — whose ardor for individual properties, fueled and reinforced by social media, has risen along with the medium’s storytelling ambitions — it has traditionally gone down a bit easier within the industry itself, where enduring such compromises are a daily part of life.

For an analogous problem, consider the Nielsen ratings. Everyone knows that Nielsen’s methodology is a blunt instrument for measuring something as complex as the myriad ways in which people consume television content. Yet periodic efforts to replace or overhaul the existing system have invariably led back to merely tweaks intended to improve it.

The same mentality has largely applied to the Emmys. Each year, a committee meets after the awards to engage in what amounts to another round of Monday-morning quarterbacking. Changes are regularly proposed to address perceived flaws, and while that’s never enough to fix everything that ails the voting, the organization occasionally takes a few steps in the right direction.

This year, that meant seeking to curb category-shopping by producers (an area where the organization subsequently backed down, granting most high-profile appeals, except “Orange”), and creating a “limited series” award. The latter supplanted the slightly outdated “miniseries” designation, and yielded as strong a roster of contenders as this year’s awards has produced, including ABC’s “American Crime,” HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge” and PBS’ “Wolf Hall.”

Ultimately, the Emmys and the aforementioned alternative awards might be ill equipped to wrangle the ungainly and growing beast that is “television” into anything that resembles a completely satisfying award experience. They are, after all, chasing a moving target. Yet if it’s any consolation, college football still hasn’t gained a firm handle on how to anoint a national champion, and aside from providing talking heads ample fodder over which to argue, that’s seemingly done nothing to dim the sport’s popularity.

In anonymous comments — or on Websites eager to gin up page views — everything sounds like the end of the world. Yet at the risk of diminishing something that is important to a great many people (and comes with cash incentives for certain publicists), when the debate involves a subjective choice between two actresses who are almost equally deserving, only a bit of perspective is required to recognize what separates a true injustice from an oversight that fails to adequately measure blood, sweat, toil and tears.