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It’s About Time for the Emmys to Expand the Number of Nominees in Top Categories

You’ll have to excuse the Television Academy if its members feel a little smug when it comes to their film counterparts. As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences keeps wading into controversy, the TV folks in North Hollywood comparatively look like they have their act together. 

In particular, the Emmys were already recognizing diverse talent back when #OscarsSoWhite was trending. A plan this year to slim down the Oscar telecast
by taping some below-the-line awards during commercial breaks and time-shifting them to later in the broadcast had been attempted and rejected by the TV Academy in 2009. And the Emmy team has never announced a boneheaded idea for an award before sheepishly saying, “Never mind” (think most popular film), weeks later.

But here’s one spot where the Emmys should be emulating the Oscars, yet have so far stubbornly refused to give in: expanding the number of nominees for the top prizes to 10.

In 2009, the Motion Picture Academy changed its rules to allow as many as 10 best picture nominees, in the hope that a few crowd-pleasers would be included. The results have been mixed, but the idea is valid. And it should be even more so in television, where the rise of Peak TV means that a majority of critically acclaimed, successful programs can’t break into the tight outstanding series categories.

Currently, the TV Academy allows seven nominees in the outstanding drama series and outstanding comedy series categories, which it bumped up from six in 2015. (Last year, a tie allowed for eight comedy noms.) But since then, the number of original scripted series on TV has grown even larger. According to FX’s annual count, there were nearly 500 scripted original series on broadcast, cable and online services in 2018, compared with 422 in 2015.

The real evolution has come in online and pay cable, which these days produce the lion’s share of the high-end programming that earns Emmy nods. In 2015, there were 49 series at the streamers and 37 from the pay-cable channels. Last year, streaming jumped to 160 shows — and pay cable increased to 45.

“There’s so much content now that you can only recognize so few in that environment,” one network president tells me. “It feels like there are so many amazing productions and shows that it would be great to have a platform for more of them to be recognized — whether it’s more categories or expanding the number of shows in a category.”

Clearly, there’s room for more nominees within the top two Emmy prizes. Last year, high-profile shows that were shut out included “Ozark,” “Killing Eve,” “Will & Grace” and “Billions.” And because Emmy voters tend to repeat their contenders, mainstays will often unjustly keep out newcomers. (No offense, “Silicon Valley.”) A move to 10 nominees in the major program categories won’t prevent the inevitable snubs — there are just too many good TV shows for that — but it will at least spread the wealth.

So why won’t the TV Academy do it? One insider tells me that among other things, it comes down to economics: For starters, the more nominees, the more
seats that have to be given away at the ceremony. Emmy tickets are a source of revenue for the Academy. It costs at least $750 for a seat at the ceremony and the Governors Ball. Nominees who are members of the TV Academy receive two complimentary tickets, however — add several more nominated shows, and that’s a chunk of change left behind, with little upside for the Academy in squeezing in a bunch of additional nominees that are likely longer shots to win.

Still, as the quality of TV programming continues to rise, and the competition to snag one of those seven slots grows fiercer, the Academy needs to find a way to include more contenders. And if it’s a money issue, here’s what may sway the Academy’s stance: the broadcast networks’ “wheel” deal to broadcast the Emmy telecast through 2026. The networks are believed to pay more than $8 million a year for the show; surely they’d like to see a little more broadcast representation in the top categories. Expanding the drama and comedy series races to 10 nominees wouldn’t guarantee such a thing, but it might allow a “Good Place” or a “Good Doctor” to sneak in.

After all, if the endgame is to increase viewership for awards shows like the Oscars and the Emmys, gaffes aside, casting a wider net couldn’t hurt. 

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