On Sunday, September 22, 2019, a three hour-long telecast known as the Primetime Emmy Awards will identify the most quality achievements in TV of the last year. Or, rather, the Emmys will declare what the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, specifically, has deemed to be the best of TV through a complicated, months-long voting process.
Obviously, if the Primetime Emmy Awards were chosen by one person — say, me — the process would be much quicker, and the slate of nominees different. Billions would not be snubbed for Outstanding Drama, for example, and Fleabag would already have won everything. Alas, I am not the Academy. I am a mere entertainment writer, trying to figure out the Emmy winners are selected in time for Monday's show. Below, we've illuminated the mysterious process that determines how nominees are chosen, and eventually how those winners' names get into those envelopes, for your enlightenment.
First things first: What is the Academy?
I truly wish I could reveal that the Academy was comprised of a band of cloaked figures who use magic to accurately determine the very best of all 2018-2019 TV, but that’s not the case. The Academy of Televisions Arts and Sciences, founded in 1946, is an honorary organization composed of 24,000 industry professionals who pay to be Academy members. These Academy members ultimately determine Emmy winners.
Dude, 24,000 is a lot of people. How is the Academy organized?
The Academy is divided between 30 professional peer groups, like performers, writers, producers, and costume designers. When it comes to the voting process, specific peer groups vote in specific categories — so actors vote on performances; directors vote on directors. You won’t ever get a very opinionated producer voting on sound design.
It's possible to switch between peer groups. In 2016, Tina Fey recategorized herself as an actor from a writer so she could vote for Sterling K. Brown in This Is Us and Sarah Paulson in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
What do Academy members vote on?
Achievement in TV, that's what. The 2019 Emmys reward programs, performances, and individual achievements that took place in TV shows whose first episode (at least) aired between the span of June 1, 2018, and May 31, 2019. So, in the spring of each year, all eligible programs, performances, and individuals submit themselves to the Television Academy — and cough up a hefty sum do so. A program pays $450, and an individual coughs up $225. But hey, it’s worth it for the possibility of a gold statue and the epithet “Emmy award winning.” This year, the Emmys received 9,100 entries over 122 categories.
How do shows sort themselves into categories? Is there a kind of TV Sorting Hat?
If you’re born on August 3, you’re a Leo. December 30, a Sagittarius. But Emmy categories are not nearly as cut-and-dry as zodiac signs. During the spring submission process, producers and showrunners declare whether their show is a comedy or a drama — but the self-chosen classification is not necessarily permanent. In 2014, after three seasons, Shameless switched from drama to comedy. After the switch, Shameless’ William H. Macy started getting nominations as a comedy actor. Actors, too, choose whether they will be considered as a lead actor or a supporting actor. It’s all a matter of strategy.
How are the nominees chosen?
The 24,000 members of the Academy vote on their favorite selection in a single category, thus whittling down the many submissions into nominees. Everyone, no matter his or her peer group, can vote on the general categories, like drama series, comedy series, television movie, and limited series. Members of peer groups also vote on selections within their own categories.
Hold up — is there any weird ranking business involved in the nomination process?
No. It's just a straight, simple tally. Accountants from Ernst and Young hand check the balances and announce the nominees in mid July. Most categories have five nominees each.
After the nominees’ heartbeats subside, they have to think strategically about choosing what work to submit for consideration to the Academy. All nominated actors choose the single episode they believe best exemplifies their prowess. Producers choose six episodes of their TV comedies or drama. All of these episodes are made available on an online platform for Academy members to view before voting.
Woah. That is like the ultimate streaming service!
You’re right. It's a portal brimming with the best of TV. The only problem? There's too much of it. In just the Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series, there are approximately 60 episodes available. Academy voters have between August 5 and August 29 to watch the hundreds of hours of TV. That’s not even counting the peer categories. That said, the Academy does try to ensure people actually watch all the selections in a category. The voting portal warns Academy members that "before voting in a category [they] must have watched at least one full episode of each nominated program,” and has voters sign affidavits before submitting.
Prior to February 2015, the winner selection process was significant different. The Academy assembled a small, select panel of judges in each peer group, chosen through a secret process, who voted on winners. The judges were sent fewer selections of each nominated work, too — which meant watching everything was more manageable. In the 1970s and 1990s, Academy members could only vote if they had attended screening panels.
How are votes tallied?
It’s simple. Everyone who voted during the nomination process can vote again during the final round. These Academy members click off their top pick in general categories and their peer group categories, and send off their ballot. The nominee with the most votes wins.
Who's going to win?