Nobody would ever say that the Emmys are a game-changing awards show. They are conventional, often noncontroversial and considerably less political than their film industry sibling. The quality is consistent, and only the most dedicated television connoisseurs really steam over Emmys outcomes for too long.
In the case of awards shows, which not-so-gracefully dance to the beat of problematic exclusion and gimmicky chaos, these qualities may actually be the very best thing about the Emmys. When stacked side by side with the Oscars, which generate more emotional frustration than is fundamentally necessary, it’s easy to see the Emmys’ clear strengths.
The Emmys, more so than their fellow awards-show counterparts, possess stability reminiscent of a sage old man. There’s little attention paid to media trends or “they’ve been around forever; they deserve something by now” campaigns. That’s not to say the Emmys nominations aren’t consistently mainstream — they are — but in a far more standardized way. The Oscars, meanwhile, could be compared to a foolish moth, sporadically drawn toward bright lights of red carpets and front-page headlines. One need only look to Leonardo DiCaprio’s cathartic but questionable win for “The Revenant” to realize the Oscars cater to fleeting public demands far more than the Emmys ever will.
The Emmys’ stability is coupled with their other advantage over the Oscars: their abundance of categories, which, when put next to the Oscars’ obnoxiously traditional limited category selection, really highlights the potential for what an awards show can achieve. At the simplest level, this is encompassed in the Emmys’ split drama-comedy categories, which may complicate things for the up-and-coming dramedy genre but certainly serve more television shows than the Oscars categories do movies. And even still, the Emmys go above and beyond this commitment to embracing the multiple genres and enormous breadth of worthy content in their category design.
A quick breakdown: There are 95 Primetime and Creative Arts Emmy categories, compared to 24 categories of the Oscars. It’s true that the Oscars air all of their categories while the Emmys only air their Primetime categories, which essentially excludes every contributing artist other than writers, actors and directors from gaining on-screen exposure.
But while it’s disappointing to not see talented makeup artists, composers, costume designers and technical workers celebrated on screens across America, the fact that folks working in these industries are eligible to win the top award in television at all is far more valuable.
More specifically, it’s the precision with which these categories are defined that is impressive; makeup categories, for example, are separated into prosthetic and nonprosthetic, while cinematography categories are separated into half-hour and one-hour series. When the Oscars lump every film genre into one category each for these fields, the result is often stiflingly reductive — costume awards going to period dramas, sound mixing awards going to action flicks, etc.
Technically, the Oscars tried. We all enjoyed the brief rise and fall of the Oscars’ popular film category, which was canceled after backlash claiming that the new category was only exacerbating Oscar elitism. In hindsight, the entire arc leading to the popular film category’s demise is pretty funny — and it’s the type of absurdity that the Emmys would be far less likely to dabble in. The Oscars, clearly misguided in their efforts, should take a feather from the Emmys’ cap: Separate categories along objective genre lines rather than ill-defined notions of popularity that are only put in place to create a “gimme” category for movies that the Oscars feel uncomfortable putting on the same playing field as what they consider highbrow art.
Their assertive commitment to avoiding controversy still occasionally lands the Emmys in the thicket of criticism. Namely, they are known to reward the same shows each year (we’re looking at you, “Modern Family” and “Game of Thrones”) and are often slow to recognize the value of new shows until they’ve proved their mettle across multiple seasons (we’re talking about “The Americans” and Jon Hamm in “Mad Men”). In an interesting twist, Netflix edged out regular frontrunner HBO to lead with the most nominations, which may perhaps signal a (slow) transition into a more ambitious and open-minded approach to the newest shows on the market.
The age-old question, of course, is whether any of this — awards shows and their associated shortcomings — actually matter. You can argue that Emmys are a glorified circlejerk for the television industry.
The Emmys face many obstacles, among them a lack of diversity that is reflective of the same power dynamics that steer the industry as a whole. But when an awards show like the Emmys does its job properly — in other words, highlighting the most innovative and transformative work on television — sometimes this can spur a spike in new viewership, uplift new artists and encourage ambitious projects.
And that, as much as anything, is what the entertainment industry desperately needs.