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Leverence Sees Wide-Open Emmy Field

The Emmy races are heating up, with nominating ballots due to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences on June 24. This year, the drama categories are white-hot across the board—from the overall program to all of the acting categories—and comedy promises some surprises. The academy made one small rule change this year—merging the category for Best Movie or Mini-Series—and it is taking at least one risk, inviting Jane Lynch of ‘Glee’ to host the show.

John Leverence, ATAS senior vice president of awards, took some time to talk about the Emmys with B&C Contributing Editor Paige Albiniak. An edited transcript follows.

Last year, all the buzz was in comedy with two big shows breaking out, ABC’s
Modern Familyand Fox’sGlee. This year, especially this spring, everything new and fresh seems to be in the drama category. How do you see this dynamic?

In drama, you have automatically two nominated slots from 2010 that are going to come open. Lost and BreakingBad both were nominated in 2010 and they are not in the competition this year. That means that automatically a third of the nominees won’t be the same as they were in 2010. You then of course also have the opportunity to move some programs back in that were not nominated in the prior year, which can happen.

For example, Big Love was nominated in 2009, but not in 2010. This year was that show’s last season. It’s already shown an ability to get nominated, so it’s definitely a contender with a nominated history.

You’ve also got House, which in 2009 was in, but was out in 2010. You have a situation where you’ve got a seasoned professional in the lineup that has shown an ability to be nominated.

You’ve also got that with The Good Wife and True Blood, two new shows that came in last year and are both back again this year.

You’ve got Friday Night Lights, which has never seen a nomination but had a very strong fifth and final year. And with its two stars being nominated last year, the show certainly has come to the attention of Emmy voters.

You also have Southland, Sons of Anarchy, The Walking Dead, which is certainly something that has surprisingly gotten a lot of attention. You also have Rescue Me, Parenthood, The Killing, Justified, Dark Blue—it’s quite a field.

There is the possibility of a really big shake-up in the drama series category this year because it’s such a strong year. If the patterns of nomination history remain, a couple more might be moved out, and then that means that two-thirds of the drama nominees will be new this year.

Meanwhile, the comedy field seems less dynamic.GleeandModern Familyseem as strong as they were last year, and there don’t seem to be any new shows breaking out to challenge them.

One significant thing in 2011 is that Curb Your Enthusiasm is not in contention this year, so one of the six slots is guaranteed to go to something new. Last year, we had three new comedies get nominated: Glee, Modern Family and Nurse Jackie.

In terms of the general quality of what you’ve got over on the comedy side, comedy is in a rebuilding program to a certain degree. You also have programs that the press and critics generally agree are maturing.

Parks and Recreation is an example of that—that’s a maturing show that’s really moved up on its game.

Hot in Cleveland is a show that’s coming in new this year and really hit the ground running.

Another one that’s gotten a lot of critical attention is The Middle. In this economy, The Middle rings pretty true. And there’s a similar maturity to Cougar Town.

We don’t have Two and a Half Men in contention this year, but Chuck Lorre is strong with both Big Bang Theory and Mike and Molly. Big Bang has not yet made it into program nomination, but it’s the same with Friday Night Lights: one year you will get notice for performers and that will carry on into notice for the programs.

The acting categories—particularly the supporting acting categories—just seem wide open. What’s your take on the acting races?

The total number of performers on the ballot this year was in excess of 1,200 across all the different categories, so you have a huge field. Veteran actors with great TV Q scores and name recognition, such as Tom Selleck on BlueBloods, tend to have an edge.

But voters also like it when all of a sudden someone comes out of the blue. For example, The Killing’s Mireille Enos has been a big surprise in terms of being the journeyman performer with very good street cred who all of a sudden has become a major part of the primetime pantheon of really significant actors.

It’s one of those situations that is very difficult to call, especially in support, but even in the lead area.

One of the raps about the Emmys is that the performer situation tends to be a popularity and name recognition sort of thing. You see a lot of the same people getting nominated and people wonder if it’s for a particular show or general body of work. The voters this year are going to have to come to terms with the fact that there are some extraordinarily talented performers who are doing very good work and doing it as freshmen. I would not want to be voting on the performer ballot.

I think what some people would say is that we need more nominations here, and that six nominations don’t accommodate all of the great performances.

Would you ever expand the nominations from six to 10, like the Oscars have done with movies?

I doubt it—we already went from five to six in a lot of those categories. I think that the [ATAS] board of governors is very concerned about proliferation. They feel that if there were a proliferation in the number of nominations, perhaps the value of each would diminish. The board would err on the side of restricting rather than expanding.

What do you and the academy think about the choice of Jane Lynch as Emmys host this year?

That’s a choice between a production company, the network and the board of governors. She’s so multi-talented. You recall all of those Christopher Guest movies that she was in, and her performance in The 40-Year-Old Virgin—I think she was kind of working on her Sue Sylvester character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. You’ll probably see a bit of Sue in her hosting performance, because it will be expected. I think that she can do so many things that she will de! nitely be able to hit it on all eight cylinders.

Last year, the Television Academy made a change to the nonfiction and reality categories, clearly delineating any nonfiction show that included any reality elements as reality. What are some changes to the rules that we should be paying attention to this year?

The biggest change this year is the consolidation in the program area of mini-series and movies. There have been numerous years in which we fell short of the requisite number of entries in order to have five nominations in the mini-series category. Movies have remained pretty strong, but minis have been going downhill in terms of their number. Last year, there were only two: HBO’s The Pacific and Masterpiece Theater’s Return to Cranford on PBS.

This change just brings programs into line with the rest of this category. We already had consolidated the general categories, such as lead actor in a mini-series or movie. The exception to the rule was the program categories, so now there will be one winner in the category of Outstanding Mini-Series or Movie.

How has the industry reacted to this change?

I think that people in the mini-series area were concerned that they were losing their category, while people in the movie category were concerned that these big juggernauts, like The Pacific, were going to move in. It’s hard for a television movie to stand up against a 10-hour epic.

What the board of governors did was revise the way the voting is done in the final round, so instead of asking the voters to rank the movies and the minis one against the other, which they thought was apples and oranges, each program is given a grade from 1 to 5, with five being best as to its quality. In a situation where you have big blockbusters, again like The Pacific, rating the shows based on their quality means the minis would not structurally automatically swamp the boat. They also kicked up the category from ! ve to six nominees.

Last year, there were five movies nominated and two minis for a total of seven. We’re going to six this year, so it’s not that much different in terms of total quantity of nominees.

How has the industry reacted to last year’s change delineating reality from nonfiction?

That was essentially just a clarification so that a program that had elements of reality would stay in the reality category, even though we had very few instances in which we had that kind of blend. Most documentaries are documentaries, and most reality shows are reality. Overall, I don’t think there was a tremendous amount of impact.

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