Emmys: Is the TV Academy Selling Writers & Directors on Broadcast Shows Short?

Writing within over-the-air strictures is a separate skillset — and not an inferior one

Emmys Writer and Director Broadcast TV
Jonathan Carlson for Variety

When it comes to rewarding the leading talent behind the camera, the Television Academy skews heavily towards cable.

Of the 47 Emmy nominees in writing and directing, only seven come from broadcast — mostly in variety series, in which “Saturday Night Live,” “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” all received noms.

In the three other categories — comedy, drama, and limited series — the broadcast nets drew only three nominations, all for final seasons of once-great shows: PBS’ “Downton Abbey” and CBS’ “The Good Wife.” Meanwhile, in the other writing and directing categories, cable swept.
With so much love thrown at cable, both basic and premium — and even a couple of nominations for our newfangled streaming platforms — broadcast’s near-absence is conspicuous. To be sure, cable dramas are where our oft-heralded Golden Age of Television first began, with pay-TV’s sexy, crass, and layered storytelling from A-list talent. But this focus on cable and streaming can distract from a truth about television: Creation for broadcast is a skillset in its own right.

Net Positive:American Crime,” top, and“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” were inventive and smart, but lack cable’s cachet. Courtesy of ABC/CW

After all, broadcast creators face challenges that cable creators don’t. Broadcast television aims for a broader audience, and as a result, its content necessarily skews conservative. Furthermore, there’s just less money available to spend on production at the broadcast networks. Cable nets receive multiple revenue streams. Premium cable and streaming services can afford to treat some shows as loss leaders to drive subscriptions. In broadcast, success is tied almost entirely to ratings.

This is particularly salient when it comes to writing and directing. A broadcast comedy can’t make every other word a curse word, à la “Veep,” or create a large-scale battle sequence that is filmed with claustrophobic intensity, as does HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Showtime’s “Homeland” films on location in such countries as Germany, South Africa, and Morocco. HBO’s “Silicon Valley” employs more than 200 consultants. There’s a level of investment here that dwarfs broadcast television shows.

At the same time, weighing what broadcast shows are able to do with their far more limited canvases uncovers some fascinating innovation. As my colleague Maureen Ryan observed, a show like “The Good Wife” made the distinctions between cable and broadcast seem irrelevant; the show could be so taut and edgy that it felt just as sexy and cinematic and engaging as a cable drama.

“American Crime,” on ABC, took the unique approach of cutting the audio when a character used a curse word, so as to include the feel and texture of a gritty drama without some of the actual grit. The CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” are two of the most original and inimitable shows on television, with tone and structure and, yes, writing and directing that are consistently jaw-dropping. And half-hours such as ABC’s “Black-ish,” NBC’s “The Carmichael Show,” and Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” demonstrate how innovative and fresh comedies can be even when they are conforming to the tropes of a family show, a multicam sitcom, or a workplace comedy.

“An expensive production isn’t necessarily a good one and flashy film talent doesn’t guarantee quality.”

Cable programming carries an air of prestige, meanwhile, that it hasn’t always earned. An expensive production isn’t necessarily a good one, and importing flashy film talent likewise doesn’t guarantee quality. But the novelty of both is, understandably, intoxicating. TV has long been the maligned, trashier younger sibling of film, but in voters’ enthusiasm to demonstrate just how much television has evolved, they’re rewarding prestige markers over actual quality. Witness the continued recognition of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” whose mishmash of brooding anti-heroes and stars Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight sounds like a good show more than it actually is a good show.

Writing and directing within broadcast strictures — and often for 22-episode seasons, to boot — is a talent that shouldn’t be overlooked by the Academy. Our preoccupation with prestige means that Shonda Rhimes has never been nominated for her magnum opus, “Scandal,” and that the Emmys somehow overlooked an Oscar-winning writer for his limited series (John Ridley for “American Crime”). Of course, cable produces wonderful television programming. But in the case of some of the nominees this year, a bias toward a certain definition of quality seems to have clouded Emmy voters’ judgment.