What are we going to do about the variety talk series category? The Television Academy implemented a plan this year to limit or expand a category’s nominations depending on how many contenders were submitted — with the exception of comedy and drama series, which will always get eight slots. But the idea was to expand the competition in the age of peak TV, and that didn’t necessarily work across the board.
As a result, some categories grew, but a few major ones contracted — including variety sketch series, which went from six nominees to just three this year (“A Black Lady Sketch Show,” “Drunk History” and incumbent winner “Saturday Night Live”). And then there is variety talk, which went from six nominees to five this year, losing “The Late Late Show With James Corden” in the process.
Otherwise, the five remaining nominees for variety talk are exactly the same as 2019 … and 2018, just without Corden: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.”
The category reduced to five nominees because there were just 24 submissions in the variety talk. Under the new rules, categories with between 20 and 80 contenders compete with five nominees; for six, there must be at least 81 entrants.
Television Academy CEO Frank Scherma recently told me the change was meant to address the continued explosion in content, but also to make sure the formula for nominees is standardized across the Emmy competition: “We wanted to have some sort of centralized sort of thinking that worked across all categories.”
That makes sense, and as I recently noted in my column about this year’s Emmy nominations trivia, the rule change expanded recognition in multiple crafts categories. That allowed more TV artisans, the backbone of this industry, to earn nominations in categories such as single-camera picture editing for a drama series, contemporary costumes, main title design and several casting, hairstyling, makeup and sound editing fields.
The variety talk conundrum is not easy to solve, however. All the nominees are perfectly deserving of their nominations and Emmy voters appear happy with keeping the same shows
in the mix year after year. But where does that leave everyone else — including Corden, who just missed the cutoff, or such newer contenders as Showtime’s buzzy “Desus & Mero”?
One option is to make variety talk an “area” category, similar to children’s program or many of the crafts categories, in which each nomination is considered on its own terms without regard to the other nominees, and there’s a possibility of one, more than one, or no winners. But it’s also non-competitive, which takes the fun out of the category, so strike that.
Perhaps it could be a juried award, similar to the exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking or individual achievement in animation, in which all entrants are screened by a jury of appropriate peer group members and one, more than one or no entry is awarded an Emmy. But again, there are no nominations, so what’s the fun of that?
Here’s my compromise, inspired by the Academy’s Los Angeles Area Emmys’ newscast awards. For that ceremony’s top prizes (such as regularly scheduled daily evening newscast), everyone can enter. Instead of being nominees, they’re all considered “candidates.” That keeps the playing field open and everyone a contender to the end. Instead of five nominees, next year let’s throw everyone in the variety talk race, with 23 “candidates.” That’ll get ‘em talking.