Earlier this summer, the morning after the daytime Emmy awards, one of the winners, The Young and the Restless’ Kristoff St. John, found out the hard way what many of his TV brethren have long known-that the Emmys are, by and large, a painful experience. Swinging his trophy overenthusiastically, the young actor suddenly felt a sharp pain, and looked down to discover blood. He had stabbed himself in the buttocks with the winged tip of his statuette.
On Sunday, Aug. 30, Fox will present the 44th annual Emmy awards (8-11 p.m.) and many in the television industry will feel the same pain in the same part of their collective anatomy, the same stinging embarrassment. These are dark times for the Emmys, which are old enough to be venerable and revered but instead are merely creaky and disreputable. Long criticized for overabundant nominations, apples-and-oranges categories, and astonishing lapses in logic, the Emmys, as the only game in TV town, could afford to ignore most criticism. That’s no longer true; next May, ABC will telecast the first annual American Television Awards, voted on by the entertainment media and offering the Academy of Television Arts & Sci-ences some sorely needed competition.
When ABC announced its plans in June, Academy president Leo Chaloukian, all aflutter, responded that the Emmys ”always will be the world’s most prestigious and coveted recognition of excellence.” (Step aside, Alfred Nobel.) But if you don’t yet believe that it’s time for the Emmys to adapt or die, just watch the show, suffer through the bewildering array of misplaced, mismatched, or just plain missing nominees, and then decide if this is truly the best tribute TV could offer itself. If the Emmy statuette really wants to earn its wings, here’s a proposal for next year’s show:
Eliminate half of the awards. This season’s Emmys feature 319 nominations in 75 categories, drawn from an eligibility pool covering half the population of Southern California. If you wonder why the Emmys telecast moves along with all the grace of a garbage barge, awards inflation is one big reason. Strange to say, many grown-ups in other lines of work go through their entire professional lives without ever winning a prize for Outstanding Late-Shift Work by a Waitress or Most Deft Use of the Decimal by an Accountant. The television industry, in which everyone but the viewer is now eligible for an Emmy, should be no different.
Reform the chaotic acting awards. This year, series stars are in the same category as guest actors, leading to some ludicrous juxtapositions: Cheers’ Ted Danson is up against Kelsey Grammer, who is nominated for playing Frasier Crane on one episode of Wings but not for his work on 26 episodes of Cheers. And Sam Waterston, who put in a sterling full season of work on I’ll Fly Away, is competing with, of all people, Kirk Douglas, who grabbed a typical suck-up- to-the-movie-star nomination (one of many indices of an Emmy inferiority complex) for one episode of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt. Until this year, guest performers had four categories of their own in which winners were announced off the air (the Emmys are now so cumbersome that they have to be given over two nights). This year the actors’ branch and the Academy’s governing board squabbled over whether guest-acting categories would be presented on the main telecast; this exception-ally dumb truce-an insult to all the nominees- confirms that the Emmys have less to do with rewarding excellence than with rewarding egos. Never again, please.
Know when to say when. Once the Academy nominators pick a performer, they do it again and again and again, with the relentless monotony of lab monkeys pushing the same lever a doz-en times to extract one food pellet. Thus, this year’s contenders include Betty White (for the 11th time), Angela Lansbury (for the 12th), and Ed Asner (for the 15th). Good actors all, but none did exceptional work this year. This isn’t just a sin of generosity but a sin of omission. Among the actors crowded out by these automatic picks are Grant Shaud (Murphy Brown), Michael Richards (Seinfeld), Tim Allen (Home Improvement), Patrick Stewart (Star Trek-The Next Generation), Bebe Neuwirth (Cheers), and Kellie Martin (Life Goes On).
Reform the nominating process. Everybody loves Northern Exposure’s Adam Arkin, so why isn’t he nominated for an Emmy? Simple—Arkin failed to submit himself for consideration and thus was ineligible. Conversely, consider Bibi Besch, nominated for her supporting role in the Fox movie Doing Time on Maple Drive. Besch did more than nominate herself—why, she made a tape of her performance available to every single voter who wanted it. (How considerate!) The notion that actors should have to nominate themselves to be nominated for awards is perverse and pathetic—the Emmys should recognize the best, even if the best don’t always recognize themselves.
Get rid of those blue-ribbon panels. Emmy winners, say the rules, are determined by ”peer panels distinguished in their particular fields”—in other words, any handful of Academy members that can be roped into a room to screen a bunch of videotapes over one weekend. Knowing that, it’s easy to fathom the odd inclusions and bizarre omissions—perhaps these panelists don’t actually watch these series year-round. Maybe it’s time for the Academy to let somebody else pick the winners, whether that means ordinary viewers, an advocacy group like Viewers for Quality Television, or even (ugh) critics. Use your brains. Sounds simple, but it isn’t; the ”duh” factor runs high at the Academy, which just doesn’t get things that every viewer in America understands. Like the fact that I’ll Fly Away isn’t a movie, even though it’s nominated for outstanding TV movie simply because its pilot was two hours long. (Hmmm that reminds me of an interesting two-hour movie I saw just this morning—the Today show.) Like the fact that The Simpsons should be eligible for a comedy-writing Emmy, because, after all, it’s a comedy! After excluding the show from all writing awards because it is animated, the Academy offered an elaborate rationalization that boiled down to ”If we change this dumb rule, we might have to change other dumb rules.” Hard to argue with that.
Ban any awards to other awards shows. This year the Academy Awards are nominated for more Emmys than Cheers. If the Emmys have nothing better to do than smooch the Oscars, perhaps it’s time for that winged goddess to put down that globe and call it a day. Those American Television Awards are looking better every day.