I’ve long banged the drum that television is better than film, yet even now, the TV industry still carries a bit of an inferiority complex.
It’s why those of us who cover TV cringe at filmmakers who finally enter the episodic world — only to proclaim their series is actually a “10-episode movie.”
It comes from decades of the small screen being seen as the stepping stone to true stardom and success in the movies. But of course, “prestige TV” has always been around, and it only intensified in the past two decades.
The industry has itself to blame for playing second fiddle.
For a long time, the Television Academy included a loophole in which Oscar doc contenders could turn around and try again for sloppy seconds at the Emmys — even though the Motion Picture Academy didn’t allow Emmy titles to do the same.
That’s how we got Oscar winners such as ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” and Nat Geo’s “Free Solo” also picking up Emmys.
These were docs produced by TV networks yet showcased in Oscar qualifying theatrical runs, giving them dual citizenship.
The Emmys closed part of that problem when it instilled a rule preventing Oscar- nominated docs from entering the race. But in some ways, made it worse: Oscar docs that had been shortlisted, yet weren’t nominated, could compete for an Emmy — but the topshelf titles that had been nommed couldn’t. Again, a sign of TV’s inferiority complex.
Thankfully, starting this year that Emmy rule quirk has been shut down. And good for the Television Academy for drawing that line in the sand.
Specifically, “Any film placed on the AMPAS viewing platform will be deemed a theatrical motion picture and thus ineligible for the Emmy competition.” That means last year’s key winners in doc/nonfiction special (Apple TV+’s “Boys State”) and exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking (Pluto TV’s “76 Days”), both of which had been shortlisted — but nominated — at the Oscars, wouldn’t have been eligible.
Boom. Now it has forced directors, networks and awards gurus to make a bit of a Sophie’s Choice with their docs: Enter the more competitive Oscar race and run the risk of missing an Emmy nomination, or go for it in the Emmys categories and play the “what if?” card, as in, “Did I talk myself out of a potential Oscar win?”
“It changes everything,” one awards exec says. “You now have to make decisions. It changes the timing of when we premiere it, when we launch it. We have to have conversations early out. We have to say to a filmmaker, ‘We think it’s stronger at Emmys,’ but they still want to do an Oscar run. You’re, in theory, giving up any chance of having a nomination.”
Sometimes it comes down to a smell test: Does it feel like an Oscars doc or Emmy doc? I suppose that’s getting us dangerously back into that inferiority divide.
But honestly, that’s fine. Even if more so-called “prestige” docs hold out for the Oscars, it’s likely to have been backed by a TV entity.
Meanwhile, even as the delineation between Oscar and Emmy is resolved, doc eligibility may be the most confusing aspect of the Emmy. This may be why the rules shift. The Primetime Emmys confusingly feature documentary or nonfiction special and a juried merit in doc filmmaking. But then there’s a News and Documentary Emmy, administered by the N.Y.- based National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences.