Emmy's 50/50 Split -- Is it fair?

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It looks like the Primetime Emmys are dancing with the stars considering the fancy footwork they're displaying with new voting changes being cheered by some observers and denounced as "inane" and "ridiculous" by others.

This year the nominees for best series and acting will be determined by a formula used by the "Dancing with the Stars" TV show: Contenders will be selected based upon a 50/50 mix of judges' scores and popular vote (of TV academy members, that is, not general public).

That's a significant difference from last year when judging panels chose the five nominees in each race after screening sample episodes of series landing in the top 15 after a popular vote, and top 10 among actors. The controversial new change hikes the chances of popular shows over less-known sleepers.

"I think they wanted to give the popular vote more weight so the award show would be more interesting to TV viewers," says Lisa Kudrow, who won an Emmy for "Friends" in 2000 and was nominated for "The Comeback" last year.

"Over the years, as viewership of network television has splintered, the ratings for all shows have dropped ridiculously low. The ratings for the Emmy Awards broadcast have also dropped every year. If that rare hit show or its cast isn't nominated for an award and won't be at the Emmys, then why should anyone watch?"

Additional changes include contenders submitting essays up to 250 words to give judges explanatory context for the sample episodes they weigh. Another change insists that actors must appear in at least 5 percent of TV films and miniseries so that the TV academy can sidestep the hubbub that erupted last year when Ellen Burstyn was nominated for best supporting actress for her 14-second turn as "Ex-Lover #3" in HBO's "Mrs. Harris."

"I think the changes we made really weren't major, but designed to create a more even playing field allowing popular programs as well as less visible but deserving programs to both have a good shot at the prize," says awards guru Pete Hammond, who's a member of the academy's Board of Governors.

"If ever there was a more embarrassing situation for the TV Academy than seeing Burstyn nominated for a 14-second role, I can't think of it. It just said to the world we run a popularity contest where name recognition rules over merit which (except in that sad case) really isn't true."

But that, perhaps, would not be the view of the father of bizarre TV, "Twilight Zone's" Rod Serling, who served as TV academy president during the 1960s. He was so distraught over how high-rated popular TV programs consistently beat low-profile rivals for nominations and wins that he radically overhauled the process of choosing winners. He introduced judging panels, which evaluated sample episodes submitted by nominees that were determined by a popular vote.

Suddenly, low-rated sleepers like "Cheers," "Hill Street Blues" and "All in the Family" ended up winning Emmys that probably saved them from early network cancellation.

However, only about 1,500 academy members -- and mostly older ones at that, including many retirees -- volunteered to sit on panels conducted in hotel rooms over a weekend to evaluate sample episodes. When at-home voting replaced the panels in 2000, low-rated fare continued to prevail while tripling the number of voters, so the change was considered a success.

Since then, the last big challenge of Emmy voting seemed to be: How to employ the same process of careful scrutiny to choosing nominees?

Last year the academy brought back Serling's panels to screen a sample episode submitted by every TV series that landed in the top 15 of the popular vote and stars landing in the top 10.

Scandal erupted when there was a sudden outbreak of "the Susan Lucci Disease" -- contenders submitting sample episodes pooh-poohed by some judges as poor choices. As a result, "Lost," which had won best drama series the previous year, failed to be nominated again and "Desperate Housewives" didn't make the cut for best comedy series.

Most TV journalists blamed the TV academy instead of the poor judgment of Emmy participants. Panicking, academy leaders have now overhauled the rules to diminish the clout of the panels by 50 percent in order to make sure that the most popular shows will be included among the five nominees for best comedy and drama series, plus all acting races.

The change marks the first move back toward the popular vote in four decades. Is it smart?

Two network executives refuse to dance around their condemnation of using the "Dancing with the Stars" model to determine Emmy nominees. However, they'll only speak up anonymously, since they're actively involved in their networks' Emmy activities.

"Everything that's wrong with Emmy voting can be traced to relying on the popular vote," says one exec. "And I mean everything, including Ellen Burstyn's nomination. The fact that the academy is increasing its importance instead of eliminating it entirely is insane."

The exec also insists that it's "ridiculous" for voters to choose nominees based upon just one sample episode of a series. He says they should use at least six, which is how many are currently distributed randomly to at-home voters deciding the winners of best comedy or drama series.

Previous to that point, to whittle down nominees from the finalist list, only one episode is seen by judging panels, which tend to be comprised of older academy members less active in the TV industry.

"The academy should pick nominees from the lists of finalists the same way they do winners," he says. "More episodes should be viewed by more academy members, who can see them at home at their convenience. That's much better than using judging panels to view one episode."

The other TV exec agrees: "The blue-ribbon panels seem a bit inane. And to have them screen just one episode is even crazier. There are many great series that take several episodes before they hit their stride. This slants it towards shows that are entirely encapsulated in a single hour and punishes serialized programs."

Being serialized doesn't hurt all TV series. "24" beat the odds last year to win best drama series and lead actor (Kiefer Sutherland). But serialization was probably the reason "Lost" got truly lost in the Emmy process last year.

Producers submitted the season opener, which was packed with bizarre, dangling plot lines that confused judges who weren't regular viewers of the series. Had producers chosen more shrewdly -- picking, say, the more self-contained "Tailies" episode, which TV Guide called its best of the year -- many Emmywatchers believe "Lost" would've been nominated for best drama series.

The snub of "Desperate Housewives" wasn't blamed on the show being serialized.

One judge claimed that episode entry simply wasn't good enough, creatively speaking, and it wasn't funny.

"Why was this submitted in the COMEDY category?" he cried.

Hoping to address the possible disadvantage faced by serialized shows, the TV academy is now asking contenders to give voters introductory essays.

"The problem I have with the essay idea is that, in theory, if you must explain what it is that your episode is about because it isn't readily apparent from watching it, what does that say for the show's effectiveness with the viewing audience?" asks Richmond of the Hollywood Reporter. "To my mind, it's akin to, 'If you have to explain the joke's punchline, it isn't much of a joke.'

"In one sense, I applaud the idea as useful and industrious," he adds. "But at the same time, it feels a little bit like a contrivance. It would seem to me that the academy would better serve the nominations process thusly: alter the measurement standard by mandating a three-episode arc (particularly for top drama series contenders) rather than just one. If a judge can't understand what's going on after watching three installments, your show doesn't deserve consideration."

Lisa Kudrow agrees on the source of the Emmy problem: "It actually sounds like the changes need to be made within the panel screenings. Vote after seeing ALL the entries for starters."

But TV academy governor Hammond believes that the Emmy is on the right track to solving its problems. Academy leaders, he insists, are "staying true to our mission of awarding only the best in this ever-changing multi-channel universe. It's an ongoing process and I think you will see it evolving each year, but right now, for my money, we are heading in the right direction."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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