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Rule Changes Open Gates To More Hopefuls

Among the consequences of TV’s Golden Age: There are more series than ever for Television Academy members to consider as they head into Emmy voting season. This year, facing that influx and a host of other sudden dynamic shifts, the Academy put some major rule changes in place in order to resolve mounting voter dilemmas.

The basic task for the Academy is deciding how a TV series should be defined. What differentiates comedy from drama? Drama from limited series? Or what about a competitive reality show from a docuseries?

Another important question: How many shows can be considered in the outstanding series categories?

With so many series on so many distribution outlets—from broadcast to basic cable to premium cable to subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) to digital—there are certainly plenty of shows from which to choose, so this year the Academy expanded the outstanding comedy and drama categories to seven each, with the possibility of nine series (and no more than that) making their way into consideration in the case of close ties.

“Last year, there were 108 entries in the drama series category. This year there are 145,” says John Leverence, Television Academy senior VP of awards. “Comedy series remained about the same, in the low 80s, but with the big increase in drama series and the traditional parity of the number of ideal nominations in both categories, the board of governors decided to increase the nominations from six to seven in both categories.”

The upside of this is that “more nominations give greater recognition of excellent programming,” says Leverence, while the downside is “it will make the voting decision that much more difficult for members for the outstanding actress and actor categories.”

Over the past few years, the Academy has worked diligently to provide answers to these questions and create categories that fairly serve all genres of television, allowing voters to pick apples from apples instead of throwing shows together in slush categories, as the variety and unscripted/nonfiction/reality series categories once were.

Comedy Is 30 Minutes, Drama Is 60

In advance of the 2015 voting season, the Academy put some major rule changes in place, specifically designed to answer critics. Last year, there was a lot of debate in the press over whether it was fair for HBO’s True Detective to enter as a drama series while FX’s American Horror Story stayed in the limited series category. Critics also questioned whether shows including Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Showtime’s Shameless should have been entered in the comedy category.

And those questions have been out there for a few years now, with Edie Falco winning a statue for playing the lead in Show time’s Nurse Jackie even though that show never felt like a comedy in the same way that shows like CBS’ The Big Bang Theory or ABC’s Modern Family do. ABC’s hour-long Desperate Housewives entered competitions as a comedy throughout its entire eight-year run, and did pick up some awards along the way, including winning the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy in 2004, the show’s rookie season.

To prevent changing categories to game the system and move into a less competitive category, or at least to eliminate perception of that as much as possible, the Academy is trying to more clearly delineate dramas, comedies and limited series.

The first border that series must cross is one of length. In general, shows that are approximately 30 minutes in length are “eligible to enter in the outstanding comedy series category,” while similarly any series in which the average episode length is 60 minutes can enter as outstanding drama series.

Of course, not all half-hour-ish shows are comedies, and not all 60-minute shows are dramas, so that’s just the first step in determining in what genre a show should enter.

If a series wants to enter in a different category than assumed, it can petition the Academy. That petition will then be considered by a nine-member industry panel, composed of the five industry members appointed by the Academy chair; three of the six current Academy governors, who will serve on any given panel with the intention of avoiding conflict of interest; and the chair of the Academy’s primetime Emmy Awards committee.

When determining whether a series should be considered a drama or a comedy, the panel will evaluate whether 50% or more of the show’s content is funny or dramatic. After that, a two-thirds vote of the panel—or six votes—is required to approve any petition. the Academy’s senior VP of awards, currently Leverence, and the president, currently Maury McIntyre, will oversee the panel.

Miniseries Are Now Limited Series

Limited series, which have grown increasingly popular in recent years, will now all be called limited series instead of miniseries. That’s a reversion back to 1974 when the category also was named outstanding limited series until it was changed to outstanding miniseries in 1986, and then folded in to made-for-TV movies in 2011.

Miniseries were broken back out in 2014. Both of those genres had waned in recent years, but now both limited series and madefor-TV movies have come back in big ways, with such limited series as HBO’s Olive Kitteridge, History’s Texas Rising, IFC’s The Honorable Woman and PBS’ Wolf Hall, and TV movies such as HBO’s Bessie and Nat Geo’s Killing Jesus.

This year, the Academy will have 24 limited series from which to choose, up from 16 last year, which was about the average over the last few years, says Leverence.

In one arcane but important change, the Academy no longer will consider the Writers Guild of America’s “created by” credit to determine whether a series is a drama or a limited series. Until this year, if a series included a “created by” credit, that series was automatically considered a drama series. It was this rule that allowed True Detective to automatically be considered last year as a drama, even though that raised quite a few eyebrows.

Limited series are defined as a program with two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 minutes that does not have an ongoing story line and/or main characters traveling with the series from season to season. Series with no more than five episodes—such as the BBC/Masterpiece coproduction Sherlock—also are considered limited series, even if their main characters and story lines do continue from season to season.

Like dramas and comedies, limited series also can go in front of the industry panel for review if questions are still outstanding about how to define them.

Acting Categories Expanded

As Leverence noted, some of these changes also applied to the acting categories, with the number of nominees in all of the major acting categories expanded to six with a maximum of eight in the case of close ties.

Another big change this year was to the definition of “guest actor.” An actor is not eligible to submit in that category if he or she appears in more than 50% of the show’s episodes in a given season.

For example, The Americans’ Frank Langella, who may have previously been considered a guest actor with frequent but short appearances, will now need to submit as supporting, arguably a more competitive category. That said, increasing the number of actors means more actors can be recognized although the final vote is more competitive.

Other changes also have been put in place. Outstanding variety series has now been split into two categories: outstanding variety talk series, the winner of which will be included in the primetime telecast, and outstanding variety sketch series, which will be awarded at the Creative Arts Awards.

Variety talk shows include late-night talk shows, such as NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, while variety sketch series are programs including NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele and IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang.

This category was split into two because with the arrival of new sketch comedy shows, the variety category surpassed the Academy’s so-called “rule of 14,” which states that once there are 14 shows that can be considered in a category, it then becomes reasonable to split the category.

That’s why last year, reality series were similarly split, creating three outstanding series categories for reality shows: outstanding reality competition, outstanding reality/structured and outstanding reality/unstructured.

Breaking that down a bit, reality competition series include CBS’ The Amazing Race, Bravo’s Top Chef, Fox’s American Idol and Lifetime’s Project Runway. Structured reality series are those with no competition but something of a format, such as ABC’s Shark Tank and Discovery’s Mythbusters. Unstructured reality series tend to be docuseries, such as Discovery’s Deadliest Catch and Bravo’s Flipping Out.


With 145 dramas, 80-some comedies and two-dozen limited series in the mix this year, Emmy voters have more choices than ever before.

Over the next four weeks,

B&C will talk to executives, showrunners, writers and producers to break down the major Emmy races and offer a few predictions of our own. Our upcoming issues:

June 1: We assess the major drama and limited series contenders in an ultra-competitive year for both.

June 8: With much less competition in the ailing comedy genre, there are nevertheless plenty of strong contenders. We gather sentiment about whether Modern Family can win a record sixth-consecutive Emmy.

June 15-22 (double issue): Last year, the Academy split reality into two more categories: structured and unstructured, with the competition category created in 2003. The Amazing Race looks for its 11th award in this category and a repeat from last year.

June 29: This is the first year the Academy has split variety into       two categories: talk and sketch. So that means Saturday NightLive’s 40th season and a raft of talk shows hosted by a rotating cast of new hopefuls aiming to shake up a category long dominated by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.


July 16: Television Academy announces nominations; Sept. 12: Creative Arts Emmys held; Sept. 19: Creative Arts Emmys broadcast on FXX. Sept. 20: Primetime Emmys broadcast Iive from L.A. on Fox.

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.