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How We’d Fix It: The Emmys

This year’s show was above average—and it was still a pretty bland ratings flop! With TV’s biggest night in dire need of a few tweaks, allow us to offer some advice.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Emmys have their ups and their downs, but whatever their outcome, they’re sure to attract an outsized share of complaints from positively aghast viewers. Sunday night’s show was hosted by Stephen Colbert, dominated by The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, and a Trump-heavy season of SNL, and was certainly better than average. The Ringer’s rigorously completist in-house awards ranker Andrew Gruttadaro estimates this show lands “somewhere in the middle” of his master list, but there’s always room for improvement. That’s especially true in the all-important numbers department—the 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards marked the broadcast’s third consecutive year of ratings decline. It’s possible the Television Academy is just as open to change as we are, given that a shake-up might be the Emmys’ last great hope.

That’s why we’ve taken it upon ourselves to brainstorm some potential tweaks to TV’s biggest, if dwindling, night. Half the fun of awards shows is armchair analyzing how we’d improve them, whether it be the choice of winners (Better Call Saul needs its time in the sun!) or an adjustment in the overarching sense of humor (fewer disgraced political figures, more making fun of Hollywood and its narcissism). Having been caught utterly flat-footed by Peak TV, the Emmys are an even better candidate for an overhaul than most aging institutions. With that in mind, here’s our short list for potential upgrades—because now that we’re done parsing this year’s victors, it’s time to turn our attention to 2018.

One Win, Tops

This isn’t the first time this admittedly nuclear option has been floated on The Ringer dot com, and it certainly won’t be the most exhaustive. But the prospect of limiting series and roles—so Elisabeth Moss could win for both Peggy Olson and Offred, because we’re not monsters—to one Emmy apiece is worth floating again after last night’s study in contrasts. All the action was in drama this year, as Game of Thrones ineligibility opened the field up to no fewer than five freshman series. Comedy, meanwhile, continued to be Veep’s domain, as it was Modern Family’s before that (and Frasier’s before that, and so on and so forth). The Handmaid’s Tale got the rush of being the new and unfortunately zeitgeist-y kid in town; Julia Louis-Dreyfus tied a record, but her I’ve-done-this-before professionalism was inherently less exciting than Elisabeth Moss having a full-on meltdown.

This fix gets at the Emmys’ core and most unique flaw: repetition. This isn’t something other awards shows have to worry about because they’re considering a fresh slate of artists and works each year. Sure, the Coen brothers might swoop in and take a slew of Oscars every three to six years, but they do it with technically separate works. Television, meanwhile, considers different installments of the same larger entity year after year, a structural flaw that inevitably leads to repetition and boredom. And as TV expands to include more and more noteworthy, exceptional projects, the old guard’s occupation of some very limited space grows less and less justifiable with each passing ceremony.

The current system may allow for the special pride of racking up several consecutive wins. But who says the pride of a bunch of extremely well-compensated creatives needs to be a primary concern? Either way, we’re more than willing to accept that trade-off for mandatory wealth-sharing and guaranteed novelty. The viewers would be, too.

Shake Up the Voting … Again

A few years ago, the Television Academy shook up Emmy voting regulations with an admittedly well-intentioned goal: to break the disproportionately older and conservative “blue-ribbon panels” stranglehold in the voting process. It was this structural tic that gave us Modern Family’s reign of terror and other baffling creative decisions. In theory, the previous method of using panels ensured that Academy members voting in a given category had actually seen all the nominated episodes. In practice, however, members were often busy making TV instead of watching it, and those who did have the time to serve on panels had a definite and frustrating set of preferences that was increasingly out of step with the rest of the Academy.

So they opened up voting for final winners—not just nominees—to the general membership, eliminating the panels as a determining factor in the last stage of competition. Soon, a different, very clear problem emerged: Combined with Peak TV, which only compounded the aforementioned time management problem, the Emmys rapidly turned into a popularity contest. This became more obvious in years past (see: Game of Thrones immediate and total domination), though you could still see traces of the effect in last night’s winners list—or rather, who wasn’t on it. In a perfect world, a series like Better Call Saul and a performance like Bob Odenkirk’s would at least stand a fighting chance against This Is Us or its leading man Sterling K. Brown, as heartwarming as his speech might have been.

An ideal fix would combine the two systems to result in a voting membership that’s inclusive yet also well-informed. Perhaps voters would have to present some kind of proof they’ve actually seen all the candidates in a given category before they submitted their choices, possibly via a screener site that could keep track of what someone has viewed. (Technology: let’s use it!) But that’s just a starter proposal! The point is, the Emmys, like television, are a constant work in progress. Why not adjust rules as we go and see what works?

The More Categories, the Merrier

Currently, one of the most bizarre things about the Emmys is how loophole-ridden their category construction is. “Comedy” is now defined as “half-hour series,” regardless of that series’s tone; a late-period show like Fargo or American Horror Story can technically compete as a “limited” show. As a result, completely dissimilar series compete for the same theoretically unifying award. Transparent is up against Modern Family; Big Little Lies steamrolls the third season of Fargo; and meanwhile, admirably well-executed shows like One Day at a Time never get the chance to break through, even though they succeed spectacularly at what they’re trying to do. The problem is that what One Day at a Time is aiming for is heartwarming consistency, not awards-friendly prestige.

The remedy to category fraud is simple: more categories. The Emmys have made gestures in this direction already, separating sketch comedy series from talk shows after decades of lumping the two together. All I’m proposing is that the Academy continues to gradually unweave the tangled knot of its catchall designations. Separate multi-camera comedies from single-camera, as the Emmys already do for cinematography. Finally give anthology series a space of their own, separate from limited series. Create a separate space for the half-hour drama so the second season of The Girlfriend Experience can get its due. Whatever the fix, just make rules that don’t allow Black Mirror’s “San Junipero”—an episode of television—to compete in a more favorable category as a TV movie. Simply upping the number of nominees for a given award from five to seven isn’t enough to keep up with the ever-increasing number of actual shows.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: More categories means more awards, which means more acceptance speeches, which means elongating a ceremony that already feels too long. So here’s how we’ll fix that—exile the less marquee awards to the preceding weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys ceremony. As charming as SNL’s Don Roy King might have been, Directing for a Variety Talk Series is never going to garner the star power of a lead acting race. Reality Competition might have been a necessary piece of the show in broadcast’s heyday, but its presence on the telecast now feels dissonant. So, let’s jettison those lesser announcements in favor of more A-list moments like Brown’s speech (or even just time for Brown to finish without getting played off). We appreciate the reshuffled categories’ sacrifices in advance.

Make Celebrities (Pretend to) Hate Each Other Again

Even after we fix how the awards are given out, we still need to figure out how to get people to watch the awards be given out. (Much as it pains me to admit it, the general public needs more of an incentive than reading out a winners list to give up three hours of their time.) Sunday’s Emmys were a markedly convivial gathering, with competing time slot hosts Seth Meyers and James Corden cheerily palling around, winners for The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies bending over backward to praise each other, and most disturbingly, Stephen Colbert wheeling Sean Spicer out for a cutesy, self-aware chuckle.

Simply put, the awards show—key word “show”—isn’t dramatic enough. For a ceremony that handed Feud approximately a billion nominations, the Emmys seemed curiously unaware that feuds are extremely fun. So what if the Late Night Wars extended to “Carpool Karaoke” vs. “A Closer Look”? What if Nicole Kidman stirred up some drama by forgetting to thank costar and coproducer Reese Witherspoon, who she’d just beat out for Lead Actress in a Limited Series? At bare minimum, what if Colbert and his producers had the backbone to resist a memeable moment and deny Trump’s collaborators the redemption and spotlight they so obviously crave?

Obviously, tabloid-worthy disputes and political courage are two entirely different affairs, but the principle still stands: A little animosity goes a long way. Just listen to the applause Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda got for their 9 to 5 reenactment. Or behold the way social media latched onto Jackie Hoffman yelling “Dammit!” when she lost to Laura Dern. People love drama—so much so that they might tune into an awards show that has drama baked into it. We’re not demanding that the Emmys become the 1995 Source Awards, but if Tatiana Maslany wants to get on stage and exclaim, “The West Coast ain’t got no love for BBC America?!” we certainly will not stop her.

Ditch the Late-Night Rolodex

Spicer’s cameo may have been Colbert’s sole misstep in an otherwise smooth hosting gig, but Colbert remains a best-case scenario for a generally dispiriting trend in awards MCs. Jimmy Kimmel has hosted both the Emmys and the Oscars in the last year, and will soon host the Oscars once again. James Corden hosted the Tonys and the Grammys back-to-back. Jimmy Fallon hosted the Golden Globes. Not coincidentally, a late night host landed a show whenever a respective show just so happened to land on their network.

Late night hosts are logical candidates for awards ceremonies, which are essentially a supersized version of the monologue/segue/intermittent bit shuffle they already do five times a week. The problem is, they’re too logical (read: boring). We’re in the midst of a thoroughly conservative run of white guys in suits, which leaves room for neither happy surprises (Andy Samberg!) nor entertaining trainwrecks (Anne Hathaway and James Franco, or if we’re sticking with the Emmys, that time 11 separate comedians shared the job). It’s not like there aren’t plenty of long shots ready for prime time: John Early and Kate Berlant! Jerrod Carmichael! Lakeith Stanfield! The weirder and riskier, the better.

One can understand not wanting to rock the boat, or at least not taking a chance on a lesser-known face at a time when the atrophy of audiences won’t slow down. But rocking the boat is precisely what draws in crowds.