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The Great Emmys Traffic Jam

Spring has brought a deluge of TV releases, from returning series to new shows. This remarkable concentration has a simple explanation: the Emmys.

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A couple of weeks ago, I got a text from a friend—someone who’s both personally and professionally invested in the state of television and does their level best to keep up. “Wait,” the message read. “Did Barry come out? I haven’t heard a word about it.” That same day, the HBO black comedy aired its fourth episode of the season (out of an eventual eight). Barry was halfway through its latest chapter, and at least one fan didn’t even know it had started.

The question felt emblematic of the past few months in TV. Even by the standards of the past decade, the spring of 2022 has seen a flood of new releases. These shows differ in form, genre, and tone, but they tend to share a certain set of characteristics: highbrow, star-led, and hosted by either a streaming service or a premium cable outlet.

The wave began around early March, when Hulu’s The Dropout unveiled Amanda Seyfried’s take on tech guru turned fraud convict Elizabeth Holmes. It has continued unabated through this weekend’s launch of Stranger Things 4, a baton-passing from a spring of prestige fare to a summer of popcorn. In between, the blitz grew to include Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, Pachinko, Gaslit, The First Lady, Hacks, Made for Love, We Own This City, Tokyo Vice, The Flight Attendant, I Love That for You, Candy, and The Offer. There were mini-trends within this larger deluge, from scripted takes on true crime (The Girl From Plainville, The Staircase, Under the Banner of Heaven) to long-delayed follow-ups from established favorites (Barry, Atlanta, Better Call Saul). But in the face of such quantity, individual qualities could be hard to discern.

This remarkable concentration has a simple explanation: the Emmys. The Television Academy’s annual award show is less familiar to the average fan than its film counterpart, the Oscars. The Emmys aren’t pegged to the calendar year; relatedly, they aren’t preceded by a steady drumbeat of precursor awards. (Some year-end shows, like the Golden Globes or the SAGs, also honor achievements in television, but they’re too far removed from the Emmys to share much of a link.)

But the awards have a more immediate effect in distributors’ increasing use of strategic scheduling. Just as the final months of the year produce a regular infusion of so-called Oscar bait, the weeks before the Emmys’ eligibility window closes on May 31 have started to yield a slate of high-profile premiere dates, with the aim of keeping hopeful contenders fresh in voters’ minds. When every network and streamer starts to follow the same playbook, though, that strategy has the potential to backfire. For Emmy voters and lay viewers alike, TV is more overwhelming than ever. And with so much competition, what’s theoretically the best time to catch the Academy’s attention may actually be the toughest window of all for a would-be breakout.

To understand how the Emmys arms race got to this point, it’s helpful to understand why they’re designed this way in the first place. The May 31 cutoff is meant to approximate the end of the broadcast TV season. The ceremony’s late-summer air date—this year’s will take place on September 12—is intended to celebrate the prior season’s accomplishments as a new cycle begins. But television, especially its upper echelons, hasn’t been defined by the broadcast schedule in years. “Once upon a time, spring was when shows were wrapping up and we were heading into repeats,” says Michael Schneider, an editor at Variety who covers TV awards. “That’s certainly not the case anymore.”

The ascendance of HBO in the late 20th century began to chip away at the broadcast model. (The last time a network show took home one of the three major series awards was Modern Family in 2014.) The rise of streaming services throughout the 2010s further eroded the concept of a shared TV calendar, while also raising the stakes. Broadcast networks are driven by advertising and therefore ratings, so awards don’t do much to attract a mass audience. But to subscription-based hubs on streaming or cable, intangible metrics like perceived quality are much more valuable—which creates the incentive to pursue visible markers like awards much more aggressively.

“Back in the days of the traditional broadcast networks, shows competed for Emmys, but there weren’t massive, expensive campaigns,” Schneider says. This lobbying can quickly turn into a vicious cycle, in which the sheer number of projects vying for a limited number of spots in turn creates more pressure: “It is now such a competitive landscape because there’s such a deluge of programming, and that’s made it more competitive and in turn made it more necessary to campaign.”

These campaigns can take the form of tactics from billboards blanketing L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard to panels and events exclusive to Academy members. (During the pandemic, many of the latter events have gone virtual, and therefore become more accessible; anyone can browse Netflix’s FYSee site to watch a roundtable with the cast of Inventing Anna or a performance by the Navarro cheer squad.) These are methods borrowed from Oscar campaigns, a template that has followed movie stars who’ve come to expect a full promotional push as talent has increasingly migrated to TV. Campaigns also trickle down to dynamics apparent to any average viewer, who may find their DVR stuffed to the brim without an obvious reason.

“Average viewer,” in fact, describes a large swath of the Emmy electorate—at least in terms of what, why, and how much they watch. That’s because, in 2015, the Emmys changed their rules to eliminate so-called “Blue Ribbon Panels,” which were small volunteer groups that selected winners on behalf of the Academy’s entire membership. Members of these panels were required to watch every nominee, a worthy goal that also favored members with the time and inclination to serve on them. This disproportionately older group had its favorites, leading some of the same contenders (Candice Bergen of Murphy Brown; more recently, Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory) to win year after year.

But opening up voting has led to trends of its own—ones that make campaigning more difficult, even as the practice has escalated. The Television Academy is vast, with nearly 20,000 members. (Even after its recent expansion, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is just half that size, at around 10,000 members.) Most of those members are so occupied with making television they don’t have much time to consume it. “I don’t think they’re watching that many shows,” says Scott Feinberg, an awards columnist at The Hollywood Reporter. “Many of these people are busy with their lives and careers, which is understandable.” Combined with the increased voting pool, those packed schedules have turned the Emmys into more of a populist referendum. Voters may have more inside knowledge of how the sausage is made, but when it comes to finite free time, they’re in the same crunch as anyone else.

These days, year-to-year streaks are much less common than they used to be, though some standbys like Late Night With John Oliver remain. Instead, they’ve been replaced by sweeps within a year—shows that dominate their given categories, to the exclusion of all others. From Game of Thrones to Fleabag to Schitt’s Creek to Ted Lasso, the modern Emmy era has been defined by a winner-take-most phenomenon. It’s exactly the opposite of what you’d expect from television’s overwhelming variety, which is rarely reflected in the eventual crop of winners. Then again, it’s also a fair response to the impossible task of evaluating all of TV for the very best in each category.

“It’s basically, what are the shows that are being watched by the most people that they like?” says Feinberg of recent winners from Hacks to The Crown to Mare of Easttown. “It’s not even about, ‘What are the worthy shows?’ It’s about, ‘What are the shows that people are watching the most?’”

The odds of breaking into that select few may ironically be higher outside the so-called Emmy season. One of the main contenders for 2022, The White Lotus, aired in July 2021, before last year’s ceremony even took place—it was a summer hit rushed into production to fill a schedule stripped bare by the pandemic. (The pandemic also continues to make its presence felt in the Emmy race; shows like Russian Doll, Stranger Things, and Atlanta were put off for years, making this spring especially crowded.) Ted Lasso, too, was a slow burn from months before, though it may have been boosted by its second season premiering while Emmy voting was already underway, though after the eligibility window had closed. The Emmy calendar isn’t only confusing to outside observers.

It’s too early to tell which shows will actually make it onto this year’s ballot. Still, there are some indications that the late-breaking premieres may be at a disadvantage. In findings shared with The Ringer, the firm Parrot Analytics—which gauges “demand” for titles based on factors like social media interest and fan activity—concluded that returning shows like Barry and Atlanta benefited from the cumulative effect of multiple release cycles, building demand year over year and, in both cases, cracking 30 times the average demand in their current third seasons. (My friend, it turns out, was an exception to the rule.) The most pronounced edge belongs to Better Call Saul, now in its sixth and final season. Saul is a prequel to one of the most acclaimed TV series of all time that premiered in a less populated landscape and streams on Netflix in addition to its linear run. These factors combined to make it the only show in this year’s bumper crop to break into Parrot’s “exceptional” category, which designates titles in the top 0.2 percent of series in demand with U.S. audiences.

As for newer titles, Parrot found that while many earned substantial interest, they tended to fall short of their more established counterparts. Under the Banner of Heaven, starring recent Oscar nominee Andrew Garfield as a Latter-day Saints detective investigating a grisly real-life murder, brought in about 15 times the demand of the average show; Gaslit, featuring no less an icon than Julia Roberts in a Watergate conspiracy drama, weighed in at around 17 times the average demand. Both were in the top 3 percent of TV series, while also falling well short of a titan like Saul. Even the winners of this current arms race aren’t reaching the heights of holdovers from an earlier era.

So what are aspiring winners, let alone everyday viewers, to do? Recent contractions in the streaming industry may stem the tide somewhat, but there’s little sign the larger forces that create the current content logjam are substantially shifting. “It’s not a trend that’s slowing down or reversing,” says Feinberg of the scramble for trophies. “So this is a conversation I think more people are going to be having as time goes by, not less.” There’s never been more of a premium on landing an Emmy as a way to stand out from the crowd. The problem is that, these days, standing out tends to come before the Emmy, not the other way around—and that’s never been harder to do.