clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Disappearing Emmy Category

As the Emmys struggle to keep up with a rapidly changing TV landscape, it may be time for them to look back on their history and resurrect the short-lived (on multiple occasions) Outstanding New Series award

Ringer illustration

All awards shows change, but some evolve in less predictable ways. The Oscars, for instance, debuted with Best Director prizes for comedy and drama and effectively two Best Picture winners, one for Outstanding Picture and the other for Best Unique and Artistic Picture. The Grammys have added and dropped category after category (though a 2012 restructuring streamlined some things; goodbye, Best Hard Rock Performance, whatever you were).

So have the Emmys, which debuted in January 1949 with a mere six awards (one for designing the Emmy Award statuette itself) and now features more than 100 categories, most of which the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences gives out before its awards broadcast itself. (Anyone wanting to find out whether Angela Bassett can beat out Sir David Attenborough in the Outstanding Narrator category will have to look elsewhere for the results.) Emmy categories come and go, but they rarely appear and disappear—then reappear and disappear again years later. Yet that’s exactly what has happened to the Outstanding New Series Emmy, an award that sounds like a good idea yet has never quite worked out.

Originally named the Best New Program Emmy, the award appeared for three nonconsecutive years in the 1950s then vanished, only to resurface again for the 22nd Emmys, which awarded programming from the 1969-70 season. This second time around it lasted four years, and then once again vanished, never to be seen again after the 25th Emmys in 1973. Why was it introduced in the first place? Why did it go away and come back again before being yanked? And does it have a future? The answers involve plunging into Emmy history and examining the ways that awards shows adapt to changing times through experimentation—and by occasionally repeating the same mistake.

It also helps to understand that the Emmys began as an attempt to lend respectability to an emerging medium that the more established film and radio fields treated with fear and contempt. The first three Emmy ceremonies limited their nominees to programs produced in the Los Angeles region, but they still established television as a field worthy of awards. “In the late ’40s, television was just getting started and was still in a relatively limited number of homes and certainly had low esteem among the power producers and so forth of Hollywood,” says Tim Brooks, media historian, former TV executive, and coauthor of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows (the pre-internet TV reference bible). “So the Emmys was considered a way to give some prestige to this new and in some ways struggling medium. We think of television as a great success over time, but it took a few years and this was one of the sparks that made it—especially in the Hollywood community—something you can get some prestige from. And as we all know, creative people love prestige.”

As the Emmys’ scope expanded, so did the number of awards handed out. The sixth Emmys, held February 11, 1954, introduced Supporting Actor and Actress awards, which would stick around, and would later split into subcategories for drama, comedy, and limited series. That show also introduced the first incarnation of the Best New Program award, which created confusion from the start by naming two winners in its first appearance (due to a vote that was close enough to call a tie): Make Room for Daddy, a sitcom starring Danny Thomas; and the dramatic anthology series The United States Steel Hour. Make Room for Daddy, which later changed its name to The Danny Thomas Show, would go on to run for 11 seasons and make Thomas, already an established star, a TV legend. One of the premier sources of live TV drama, The United States Steel Hour would feature everyone from James Dean to Andy Griffith and boost the career of writer Rod Serling, who would go on to create The Twilight Zone after clashing with Steel Hour producers and sponsors over the content of one of his scripts.

But the fact that the Emmys awarded both of the shows—a decision made due to a statistical tie—was just the most prominent evidence of the confounding nature of the category, which was also spelled by the lack of a unifying theory. Make Room for Daddy and The United States Steel Hour had little in common with each other, or with the other series nominated: The Loretta Young Show (another anthology drama hosted by the film star), the documentary series Adventure, Edward R. Murrow’s interview program Person to Person, and the wonderfully named Ding Dong School, a show aimed at preschoolers.

Also confusing: One of the winners also won another award. The United States Steel Hour won for Best Dramatic Program. “So, you know,” Brooks notes, “What’s the point? If it’s going to win in one, it has a very good chance of duplicating in another.” Maybe that’s why the Academy removed the award for two years before restoring it with the ninth Emmy Awards in 1957, when some of the same problems plagued the award—and started a new trend. The nominees in the Best New Program category in the ninth and 10th Emmys included The Ernie Kovacs Show (one of the era’s most groundbreaking series), Leave It to Beaver, the Jack Paar incarnation of The Tonight Show, and Maverick. The awards, however, went to Playhouse 90 (a major dramatic anthology series) and the arts anthology The Seven Lively Arts, respectively. Both of those shows have their places in television history. Both are also the safest, most traditionally prestigious choices, the ones most likely to fulfill the original goal of the Emmy Awards: to burnish the image of television itself.

Following the 10th Emmy Awards, the Best New Program honor went into hibernation alongside two other categories that had made their one and only appearances (perhaps because they were such mouthfuls): “Best Continuing Performance (Female) in a Series by a Comedian, Singer, Host, Dancer, M.C., Announcer, Narrator, Panelist, or Any Person Who Essentially Plays Herself” and its male counterpart. That doesn’t mean the Emmys gave up on new ideas, however. Like the world around them, the Academy spent the ’60s expanding its mind—or at least its categories—and as the ’60s rolled into the ’70s, the Emmys were ready to try the Best New Program award again, under the new name of Outstanding New Series. But while the times had changed, the problems with the award had not, particularly the oddness of pitting disparate types of shows against one another.

The Outstanding New Series nominees at the 22nd Emmy Awards included Sesame Street; The Bill Cosby Show; The Forsyte Saga (a BBC import adapting a series of John Galsworthy novels); Marcus Welby, M.D.; and the winner, Room 222. Of these, Room 222 and The Bill Cosby Show were also nominated in the Outstanding Comedy Series category, while Marcus Welby, M.D. beat out fellow nominee The Forsyte Saga to win the Outstanding Dramatic Series award. Elsewhere, Sesame Street won for Outstanding Children’s Program. “It almost feels like, in a lot of these cases for a lot of these awards shows, the new series [award] is sort of a consolation prize,” says Chris Beachum, managing editor of the awards-focused site GoldDerby. “Wouldn’t you think you’re the Best New Series of the year if you’re also the Best Drama of the year?”

If nothing else, the nominees during the four years that the Outstanding New Series Emmy existed in the early ’70s provides a fascinating snapshot of what happened in television at that heady moment. The second year of the revived category’s existence featured The Flip Wilson Show, a then-rare crossover success for an African American performer, while also speaking to the period’s sitcom renaissance with nominations for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Odd Couple, and All in the Family, the latter that year’s winner.

That All in the Family also won that year’s Outstanding Comedy award continued the category’s confusing habit of overlapping with other awards. Then there was the category’s old problem of predictably favoring the toniest choices, an issue that started to creep back in during the third year of its revived existence. Nominees for the Outstanding New Program honors at the 24th and 25th Emmys included Columbo, Sanford and Son, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, Kung Fu, Maude, The Waltons, and M*A*S*H. Their winners, respectively: Elizabeth R (a Glenda Jackson–starring historical drama now best remembered by its Monty Python parody; head’s-up: It’s pretty racist) and America: A Personal History of the United States, a 13-part documentary hosted by Alistair Cooke.

Then the category disappeared again. “I think the track record of who the winners were and how it’s set up—two are commercial and two aren’t—kind of put the nail in the coffin for the whole idea of a Best New Show or Outstanding New Series category,” Brooks says. It’s likely, Beachum suggests, that the trend toward rewarding the most obviously prestigious material might have continued had the category stuck around. “I have noticed over the years, especially with something like the Television Critics Association, if you have dramatic- or anthology-type material, it’ll often win over comedy. It’s deemed to be—kind of like at the Oscars—more important. So that could be why you see those two winning in ’72 and ’73. When All in the Family won, it was [up against] two other comedies, a variety show and a show that nobody even remembers. And All in the Family was so groundbreaking. I can see why it won that year. It would’ve been interesting to see if it had been up against an Elizabeth R, which was your typical ‘Emmy fawning all over something that’s royal and British.’”

Television has undergone profound changes in the decades since, though the Emmys have been less adaptable, rewarding the same programs and performers over and over until new voices forced their way in. The ’90s saw cable series make inroads into territory that had previously been dominated by broadcast networks, and recent years have seen streaming services vie for the same awards as more established outlets. Still, the spotlight has remained narrow since the major categories have remained largely unchanged. The most common complaint leveled at TV in 2019 continues to be that there’s just too much of it for anyone to keep up with every notable program. Most TV viewers now try to focus on the truly extraordinary and personal favorites. That means living with a nagging sense of FOMO, but awards can play a valuable service by spotlighting programs that might not otherwise be on viewers’ radars. With more new shows being produced than ever before—and with so many of them being of quality—it’s worth asking whether the Emmys ought to evolve, and whether bringing back the Outstanding New Series category is one such way to do so.

Brooks doesn’t think so. “‘New Show’ is an artificial construct. ‘Best’ is much more representative of what [the Emmys] are supposed to be,” he says. “‘New’ adds another layer of ‘It happened to start this year.’ Maybe 10 great shows start this year. Maybe no great shows start this year.” Beachum agrees, making an argument that resembles the outcry against the Oscars’ failed attempt to instill a Best Popular Film award: “It’s almost like sitting at the children’s table as opposed to the adult table at Thanksgiving. It feels like a way to shoehorn in some things that they might not want to vote for in the main category. If I was a producer of the show, if I didn’t win both the regular series award and the new series award, it would feel like I had gotten something secondhand almost.”

Not all awards experts see it this way. Citing recent history, IndieWire’s TV awards editor Libby Hill makes a case for bringing it back. “I would love the institution of a Best New Show category,” she says. “The problem the Emmys face that the Oscars rarely have to grapple with is the idea of awards dynasties. If you were a fan of Modern Family, then their five-year stint as Best Comedy Series was probably an Emmy dream come true. But if you were a general television fan hoping to see the TV Academy embrace more series that were breaking down what TV comedies could be—including shows like Orange Is the New Black, Girls, and Transparent—then it was easy to feel as though the Emmys were unable to pivot with the times.”

Though this year features, in Hill’s words, “a lot of somewhat fresh meat entering the race,” such as Fleabag, Russian Doll, Bodyguard, Succession, and Pose, that doesn’t mean the Academy has solved its legacy problem for good. With new streaming services debuting nearly as quickly as new series, the need to broaden the reach of the awards’ spotlight will remain a concern. Does moving forward mean reviving a category from the past? Or would a new Outstanding New Series Emmy prove to be, as in years past, less than outstanding? One thing’s for sure: If the Emmys were to give it a try, the Academy could always kill the category if it doesn’t work out. It’s done so twice before, after all.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.