How Emmy works

Ever wonder why your favorite shows never get nominated but "The West Wing" always does? Here's why

Published September 14, 2005 10:27PM (EDT)

The atom-hoisting goddess that is Emmy has always assumed a back-of-the-shelf position to her bossy big-screen cousin, Oscar. But she has slowly, in the past decade or so, inspired a similar type of lust among the networks and studio executives who hope her shine will rub off on their shows.

No one, in fact, has used her to greater effect than HBO, the leader in both Emmy nominations and wins in recent years, which will have spent between $2 million and $3 million in its Emmy campaign this year, according to the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable, far ahead of its competitors.

How, then, to explain the sad case of HBO's "The Wire"? In some ways, the much-vaunted gritty urban crime drama is exactly the sort of product Emmy should love. It was a surprise slew of Emmys, after all, that in 1981 catapulted "Hill Street Blues," the archetypal modern copera, from the brink of cancellation to TV nirvana. And then there were the recent perennials "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order" and "The Shield." Emmy has a serious thing about cops.

Still, "The Wire's" first two seasons went by with nary an Emmy nomination, despite sheer adoration from critics. And this year -- in spite of a career-making curtain bow from Idris Elba, as a brilliant crime lord and would-be Trump named Stringer Bell (and Salon's hectoring of Emmy last year) -- it garnered just one nomination, for writing.

So what causes some shows to win, and others, like the "The Wire," to go sorely undervalued? "There's a level of visibility you need to reach to get an Emmy," said Lawrence O'Donnell, an Emmy-nominated writer for "The West Wing." "'The Wire' just never achieved it."

David Simon, the creator of "The Wire," agreed. He also indicated that even if HBO had offered him a specially tailored Emmy campaign, he wouldn't have cared. "I don't consider the Emmys to be particularly precise measurement of anything other than a show's cultural popularity," Simon said, from the set in Baltimore. "I don't think an Emmy is going to convince anyone who's not with us already that they should watch the show."

But Simon and O'Donnell are not entirely right. The fact is that bad ratings and a lack of popularity do not disqualify a show from Emmy consideration. And Emmys can definitely bring new eyeballs. Partly because of its gloominess and novelty, "Hill Street Blues" was ranked 87th out of 93 prime-time shows its first season, before it was a big surprise Emmy winner. "Cheers" was likewise at the bottom of the heap until it won for outstanding comedy series. More recently, "Arrested Development," the frenetic comedy whose ratings were bad enough to put it on Fox's cancellation short list for its first two seasons, has been helped somewhat by Emmy nominations and a win last year. Then there are those shows -- "Mad About You," "Moonlighting" -- that become Emmy darlings despite never moving beyond a niche audience.

But what most of the above-cited shows have in common -- what "The Wire" lacks -- are major industry figures to stand behind them when the executives are hovering with axes drawn. A powerful producer may be the biggest boon of all when it comes to getting an Emmy nomination. "Hill Street Blues" was created by the cop-drama guru Steven Bochco, who had already been writing "Columbo" and producing TV for 10 years. "Cheers" had the comedy shaman James Burrows, who was coming off his work on a series of critical darlings: "Taxi," "Mary Tyler Moore," "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Laverne and Shirley." "Arrested Development" has Hollywood heavy-hitters Brian Grazer and Ron Howard behind it.

Of the three series not belonging to HBO that are nominated for outstanding drama this year, the category that would have included "The Wire," Grazer is behind one ("24"), John Wells, an Emmy perennial, another ("The West Wing"), while the only upstart nominee, "Lost," belongs to J.J. Abrams, one of the most ballyhooed young producers in Hollywood because of his success with "Alias" and "Felicity," who's now directing major Hollywood films ("Mission Impossible: III").

These big-cheese producers attract other big-cheese producers, writers, directors and crew who have been in Hollywood for a long time and know a lot of Academy members. Indeed, most of them are members themselves. It's likely that these veterans have been nominated and even won before. Hollywood is a small world; TV, even smaller.

"If we see David Kelley's or John Wells' name down there, a lot of us will think: Well, gee, I really like 'The West Wing.' It's as good as it is because of John Wells. I'm just voting for him," said O'Donnell, a former Senate staffer and political pundit.

For producers as prolific as Wells, in other words, output and reputation alone can bag a good bloc of votes. (Wells is O'Donnell's boss on "The West Wing.") Hollywood's incestuous atmosphere also leads to a kind of competitive collusion. Since Emmys are given out for particular episodes, not entire series, producers, directors and writers with clout will push for their own work to be nominated, even when they know those episodes are not the best examples of their show.

Stephen J. Cannell, who produced "The Rockford Files," "The A-Team," and "Wiseguy," summed up the attitude this way: "The executive producer wrote that one, so it's his favorite, so he puts it in." The studios that produce the most shows are also a major power in deciding which shows get nominated, often by engaging in what's known as "bloc voting": encouraging the many academy members employed by the studio or affiliated with it to vote for shows produced by that studio. For a company like Warner Bros., which has thousands of employees, myriad production deals with independent producers, and more than 30 shows on the air, bloc voting can be an overwhelming force in the process.

"I ran an independent production company for a long time and we just didn't have enough votes to get nominations," Cannell said.

Recently, what many Emmy nominees also have in common are marquee guest stars from the film world. Featuring Sean Penn or Steve Buscemi, say, seems to be an almost sure-fire way of securing a trophy. "Will & Grace," a Burrows show and nominee for best comedy year in and year out -- while its ratings have slipped, the show still leads with 15 Emmys this year -- has become a veritable clearinghouse for cameo one-offs. ("Arrested Development" has given this phenomenon a fetishistic, hall-of-mirrors touch; Liza Minnelli and David Cross on the same set? Isn't that one of the signs of the Apocalypse?)

"The only way to guarantee an Emmy is to hire Betty White," said a network marketing executive, only half-joking. White has won six times over 30 years.

Spinning out the ploy further and further, shows now hire season-long guest stars for the express purpose of getting an Emmy along with more attention, often making a nominating campaign part of the deal with the actor. When Glenn Close was improbably hired for the cast of "The Shield," it was widely expected that F/X would make it a point of pushing for an Emmy for her. And, sure enough, she is nominated.

Networks can also garner Emmy nominations with savvy marketing. Showtime has proven that this year with its new show "Huff," in which Hank Azaria plays a troubled psychiatrist. It is by no means a "Deadwood"-size, much less a "Sopranos"-size, hit. But in February of this year, months before the nominations, Richard Licata, Showtime's vice president of corporate communications, sent out the entire season of "Huff" in fancy packaging to voters. Licata invited reporters to the set and suggested story ideas. He pushed the lead actors to the late-night talk show circuit. He made it known, well before the second season was even in production, that Angelica Huston would be coming on the show.

Licata's efforts paid off in spades: Despite so-so viewership and middling reviews, "Huff" was nominated for seven Emmys.

"A lot of executives feel that someone else will take care of it," Licata said of Emmy campaigning. "They figure it doesn't really make a difference."

Licata said he begins his Emmy work at the end of December and doesn't stop until the awards are given out the following September. He admits that getting the award is incidental.

"It's about branding the network -- creating an identity," he said.

By James Verini

James Verini is a writer in Los Angeles.

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