Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Fixing a hole

Movie award shows are cloning their way to extinction. There are so many critics groups, so many TV specials, that by the time the Oscars roll around, we already know not only who's going to win, but what they're going to say. (Someone needs to shackle Philip Seymour Hoffman to a chair, clip his eyeballs open, and make him watch that damn speech so many times in a row that he physically won't be able to utter those words in that order ever again.)

The Emmys have a different kind of duplication problem. There aren't that many TV award shows, but the nature of television means the same people and shows can be nominated -- and win -- year after year after year. The speeches may change a little, but the faces don't -- and some of those faces start to look embarrassed after a while. (Dennis Franz, Helen Hunt and Aaron Sorkin come to mind.)

A few years back, the TV Academy got rid of the blue-ribbon panels that voted on the winners. These panels would check into a hotel for two or three days and watch all the submitted tapes in a category. The idea was to guarantee that anyone voting had actually watched all the shows. The problem: the only Academy members who had enough free time to be on a panel tended to be older and/our out of work, and they gravitated towards older, safer shows and people (Tyne Daly, Candice Bergen).

So in 2000, the Academy decided to put voters on the honors system, signing people up for a particular category and letting them watch the screeners on their own time. And for the first few years, the new system worked, as Emmy newbies like Patricia Heaton and Allison Janney got trophies. But then they kept getting trophies, and getting trophies, ad nauseum.

The problem, it turned out, wasn't with the final voting process, but with the nominations. Nominations are open to the entire Academy, and no one has to sign an affidavit or pretend in any way that they've watched anything; they just have to scan a list of eligible nominees and check off five names per category. And since people in the TV business rarely have time to actually watch TV, it's all guesswork, based largely on name recognition and media hype. The nominees wind up being the same year after year, which makes it hard to shake up the winners.

But now, according to Variety, the panels are coming back, at a different point in the process:
Starting this year, a blue ribbon panel will ultimately decide the nominees for outstanding comedy and drama, as well as the key Emmy acting categories. By doing so, the org hopes to diversify who ends up getting honored.
Could work, but I have two problems. First, the new process will start off the same way the old one did: the entire Academy will be allowed to check off a list of the eligible names, and then the top 10 (for series) or 15 (for acting) will be shown to the panels to pare the numbers down to five per category. What are the odds a "Gilmore Girls" or "Veronica Mars," to name two recently snubbed shows, can make the cut to 15 or 10, much less to five?

There is some precedence: Blue ribbon panels already choose the nominees in the guest actor/actress and variety show performer categories.
The guest star categories are annually the worst sinners in terms of name recognition over talent. If you're a movie star slumming on television, or a TV icon coming out of semi-retirement, you're pretty much guaranteed a nomination, no matter how good or bad you were. So if these are the same people in charge of the larger process, the nominations could actually get worse, not better.

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