When will the Emmys join the TV revolution?
It’s time for the Emmys to enter the brave new world that it celebrates.
For years, the Television Academy has waged a battle against the opposing forces of space and time. While the number and types of television have multiplied at a near-laughable rate (Starbucks is now streaming its own original series, for heaven’s sake), the Emmys telecast has doggedly attempted to shoehorn a rapidly expanding universe into the same format it has used since the days of rabbit ears and three networks.
Why, in this great age of exploration, when the walls have come down and the ceiling shot through, do the Emmys continue to insist that all it needs is a little paint and a few throw pillows to spruce upthis three-hour anachronism?
If television can support anthology series, limited series, television events, television movies, docudramas, docuseries, two versions of Sherlock Holmes and eight ways of looking at O.J. Simpson, it can certainly withstand a creative revamp of its three-hour-long awards ceremony.
Which, despite television’s increasing domination of popular culture, and the intense opinions it inspires, last year drew its smallest audience ever (11 million viewers).
Clearly something has to be done.
Tweaks are not the answer. Attempts to save a little space by combining categories — while television movie and limited series are separate, their acting categories are not — has only led to anguish. (Any process in which both Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen are overlooked for “The Dresser” is clearly broken.)
Neither does the recent expansion of nominee lists from five to six or seven solve the increasing absurdity of comparing series of wildly different formats and platforms — if, as many like to say ad nauseam, a cable or streaming drama is built like a 10-hour movie, why is it competing against a 22-episode broadcast series?
And last year’s nonsensical decision to categorize by the numbers — if a show is 30 minutes, it’s a comedy; 60, it’s a drama — was nothing if not a cry for help.
Following the success of this year’s two-night Creative Arts Emmys, and the explosion of limited series, the architects of the prime-time telecast might want to consider switching categories themselves, from variety series to the more time-elastic “special television event.”
Multiple nights, multiple platforms, instant downloads, whatever. Take some chances, defy expectations, have some fun — the industry you’re saluting certainly does.
As this year’s frenzy of multimillion-dollar campaigns prove, the Emmys are more important than they’ve ever been, so why keep shoehorning them into a format that’s about to blow its rivets?
Why not follow the template of television itself and try something new?
Consider the buzz generated by this year’s bifurcated Creative Arts Emmys.
Yes, that’s right, “buzz” and “Creative Arts Emmys” in the same sentence.
Traditionally held off-camera in an all but undisclosed location the week before the Primetime Emmys, the Creative Arts ceremony is, in fact, the event at which most Emmys are awarded; to editors, composers, costume designers, casting directors, cinematographers, “specialty” programming and guest actors.
Not that anyone outside the television industry would know this. A few winners are mentioned during the prime-time telecast, but if we’re being completely honest, only the acting categories get any attention.
Until this year.
This year, the Creative Arts Emmys got all sorts of attention. There was A-lister news: Amy Poehler finally won a winged statue! As did RuPaul and Peter Scolari, who hadn’t even made the original nominee list! There were breakthrough moments — “Jessica Jones’” brought Marvel its first Emmy — and long-simmering competitions such as FX pushing hard to topple HBO in total wins.
There was even Actual Controversy: James Corden’s “The Late Late Show Carpool Karaoke” primetime special beat out Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” for the variety special trophy, which is, our love for Carpool Karaoke notwithstanding, just insane.
But not as insane as all this Emmy drama occurring one whole week before the Primetime Emmys.
Some of the attention was due to the split, which itself was news and generated fodder for two consecutive news cycles.
Mostly, though, it was just the widening ripples of the revolution.
As the primetime telecast became more crowded, entire genres joined the costume designers and composers: structured and unstructured reality series, as well as reality host; animated series; the newly divided short-subject category; and, perhaps most important, the newly hot documentary and documentary series.
Two of this year’s most-talked-about shows — Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” and “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — got their Emmys a week before the prime-time telecast.
As television has become more ambitious, beloved and competitive, the “below the line” awards have taken on new meaning as well. The television audience is as sophisticated as the shows themselves; viewers care about which series wins for costume, makeup and cinematography in a way they did not before.
Meanwhile, after they have waged Emmy campaigns to rival any Oscar hopeful, series and networks trumpet each and every win. Marvel’s first Emmy was for main title theme music, and it was cause for celebration.
An edited version of the Creative Arts ceremony airs Saturday night on FXX, and while it is doubtful it will draw an audience that comes close to Sunday night’s prime-time ceremony, the increased interest should open new possibilities for change.
Why not bring documentaries, animated series and variety specials into prime time?
Why not consider separate categories for shows with 12 and fewer episodes and make the Emmys a two-night special?
Broadcast or livestream the Creative Arts ceremony and make it a bigger part of the process?
The Television Academy could, of course, follow Oscars’ lead and narrow the field. But the film academy has long been criticized for having forced function to follow form, for allowing its tastes to create a subgenre engineered to win Oscars while more popularly admired films are regularly ignored.
With their increasing preference for cable series, the Emmys are dancing around similar issues, which is all the more reason the academy should take a moment and consider all possibilities.
In the last decade, television has done things no one thought possible, or feasible, or sensible, and it has transformed not just itself but the American narrative.
To truly celebrate and reflect the revolution, the Emmys might want to consider joining up.
Watch the Emmys with us on Sunday! We’ll be live blogging all day, all night at latimes.com/emmys.
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for weekly recommendations, analysis, interviews and irreverent discussion of the TV and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.