The process is a maze of committees and panels and juries. A great season can mean nothing unless you choose sample episodes wisely. And most winners probably don't even realize that 95 percent of the eligible voters didn't even cast ballots in their category.
Warning: the Emmys voting system, which officially kicked off this week with the posting of eligible entries on the official website, makes the Motion Picture Academy's preferential system of vote-counting seem like child's play.
"It's a very complex and weird landscape here," admits John Leverence, the senior vice president of awards at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Think of it (this is our metaphor, not his) as a freewheeling, constantly-adjusted cousin to "Dancing With the Stars" (where the judges scores are combined with the popular vote) and the Grammys (with an array of special panels and rules that restrict voters to a small number of the dozens of categories).
It's hard to explain the whole thing, and the rules tend to change frequently, but here's a basic rundown:
First, unlike the Oscars or the Grammys, entries cost money. Fees range from $200 to $600 for individual-achievement entries, and $400 to $800 for program entries. (Academy members get one free entry, and half price on the second.) In contrast to awards where the overseeing body determines the category in which an achievement belongs (such as Oscar voters' choices of lead or supporting actor and actress, or the Golden Globes' determination of comedy or drama), the Emmys allow each show's producer to determine the appropriate category.
But beware, because if a producer enters his show in the comedy category and it grows increasingly serious in ensuing years, there's no going back: in the eyes of the Emmys, once a comedy always a comedy.
Once the eligible programs are determined, ballots are posted on the Academy website. This year, more than 4,000 separate programs or achievements qualified.
Many of the categories simply list the show and potential nominees, but others include descriptions of the achievement under consideration. In the acting fields, for instance, lead and supporting contenders are listed by name, character name, and show, but guest actor candidates can supply a description of their performance:
Members will receive Scantron voting sheets in the mail by June 10, and they'll have until June 24 to return those sheets to the Emmys' accounting firm, Ernst & Young.
Every one of the TV Academy's more than 15,000 members is eligible to vote for the best program categories, which include Outstanding Drama Series; Comedy Series; Variety, Music or Comedy Series; Miniseries or Made for Television Movie; Reality Show; and Reality-Competition Show. In each category, they can cast a number of unranked votes (usually five, but sometimes as many as 10) for shows they think deserve attention; the programs with the largest number of votes receive nominations.
Members are also divided into 28 separate "peer groups," the equivalent of the Motion Picture Academy's branches. Each of them receives additional ballots in its field of expertise.
Some of the decisions of which peer group can vote in a category are curious. Voting for the Emmy for Reality-Show Host, for instance, is open to members of the casting, daytime programming, nonfiction programming, producers, production executives, professional representatives and television executives peer groups; in the cast of the last four of those groups, it is the only extra category in which they are allowed to vote.
In most of the categories, this vote works the same way as the program categories: branch voters select (but don't rank) anywhere between five and 10 of their favorites, and the achievements with the largest number of votes are the nominees. "In general," says Leverence, "the popular vote gets you nominated."
But there are complications.
In some categories, Sound Editing and Interactive Media among them, the peer group voters select a top 10, and then special committees narrow that 10 down to the final batch of nominees. In other categories, including music and special visual effects, panels and juries select the nominees without input from the peer group at large.
In the music peer group, any member who submits an entry is required as a condition of that entry to serve on a judging panel in both the nominating and final phases of voting.
Once the nominations are in (July 14 this year), the rules change dramatically. In an attempt to make sure that Emmy voters have seen all the nominated achievements, winners are chosen exclusively by panels of volunteers, who watch episodes chosen by the nominees to represent their work.
Shows in the running for program awards submit six episodes; actors submit single episodes. Selecting the Emmy episode becomes a crucial decision that can make or break a nominee's chances, and it marks a decided shift in the entire premise of the award. The nominations in many categories are given for an entire season's worth of work; the awards essentially honor a single episode, or a small group of episodes.
All members of the Academy are invited to join the panels that judge the outstanding-show categories, while members of each peer group are asked to judge the individual-achievement categories, provided they make it through a vetting process that disqualifies those who have a conflict-of-interest with any of the nominees.
(In categories like Sound Editing, where Leverence says many of the members are employed by a handful of companies, that can have significant repercussions.)
Prior to the year 2000, the panels met in person to watch all the nominees and vote. Now, to make things easier, they are allowed to do the viewing at home. But because it can take a long time to view, for instance, the six submitted episodes for each of the Drama Series nominees (6 episodes x 45-minute running times x 6 nominees = more than 25 hours of viewing), members are restricted in how many ballots they can cast.
"It takes a long time to view everything in a category, so there is a limit to how many categories you're allowed to judge," says Leverence. "In most cases, a member won't judge more than two or three categories."
The size of the judging panels varies by category, from a high of as many as 700 or 800 in the Outstanding Comedy Series category (comedy attracts more volunteers than drama, because its shows tend to be half as long) to as few as 15 or 20 in categories with small peer groups, like Cinematography.
The bottom line: Emmy winners in the marquee categories are selected by at most about 5 percent of the Academy members, and in the individual-achievement categories by a percentage of eligible voters that isn't much higher.
In most races, the voters rank the nominees in order of preference, and the votes are counted by a reverse-weighted system in which first-place votes count as 1, second-place votes as 2, etc.
"It's like a golf score," says Leverence. "They add everything up, and the show with the lowest score wins."
But, of course, there are exceptions. In the newly-merged category of Outstanding Miniseries or Made for Television Movie, Emmy organizers have decided that it's not fair to have voters weigh miniseries against movies head-to-head. Instead, voters are asked to judge each nominee on its own merits, and rate it on a scale of one-to-five. The show with the highest average wins.
In the so-called "non-competitive" categories, which include art direction, picture editing and some of the non-fiction programming awards, panelists are asked only to vote yes or no; any achievement that receives 90 percent yes votes takes home an Emmy.
Those are the basics, but of course there's more to it than that. When we say that we don't have the stamina to get into all of it, we trust you'll understand.