The Primetime Emmy Awards struggle to adapt to a changing landscape that threatens to make primetime irrelevant
It used to be so simple.
The Primetime Emmy Awards honored television's marquee programs, the ones that everybody watched in the same place and at the same time: on network broadcasts that took place Monday through Saturday from 8 to 11 p.m. (7 to 10 Central), Sunday from 7 to 10.
And then, for good measure, the Emmys threw in the news shows that preceded those primetime blocks, and the late-night programming that followed them.
But today's television landscape is dramatically different, and the primetime designation is gradually – or not so gradually – becoming almost irrelevant.
Shows originate on the web, or start on traditional television and migrate to the web; DVR and streaming mean that viewers watch shows whenever they feel like it, traditional definitions and time frames be damned.
So how do the Primetime Emmys adapt to a post-Primetime world?
"Change is coming," said John Leverence, the senior vice president of awards for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. "I think we are at the dawn of a strong new presence of web-based programming.
"It is in 2012 what premium cable was in 1984, in terms of moving in the way of Emmy recognition and prominence."
The tip of the iceberg, he told TheWrap, came when the animators in the TV Academy changed their categories to make room for the kind of short-form animation often showcased on the web. (The Outstanding Short-Format Animated Program category accepts web-based work, as do two Interactive Television categories.) Leverence also points to the live-action show "Lilyhammer," a Netflix series that is exclusively web-based.
If Emmy voters recognize that series starring Steve Van Zandt (right), Leverence thinks it could be a watershed moment as the Academy moves to set up special-class categories designed to accommodate the new reality.
All of this comes because of a decision that the Academy made a few years ago: If it feels like television, it's eligible for Emmys.
(The TV Academy is also far less particular about a program's debut platform than their cohorts at the Motion Picture Academy, who disqualify films premiering on TV from Oscar eligibility. The TV Academy will accept programs even after they've had a limited or film-festival theatrical debut.)
"We have on the one hand established that there are certain national platforms [that qualify for Emmys]," said Leverence. "They are broadcast, premium cable, basic cable, satellite and internet. That's one defining parameter of the primetime competition, and the other is the genres that are typical to the history of primetime.
"We've come a sophisticated distance from where we were not too many years ago, when we were looking at broadcast and syndicated and public television as our platforms, and had straight-ahead, no-nuanced 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. parameters for shows. It's getting a little bit more complex now."
A few years ago, he added, the TV Academy met with its New York-based sister organization, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which administers the daytime, sports, news and documentary Emmys. The two groups discussed what Leverence called "a breakdown in categories, mostly because of web-based programming."
Rather than adhering to the traditional borders – if it airs at night it goes on the Primetime Emmys, otherwise it goes to the Daytime Emmys – the groups decided, he said, "not to worry too much about temporal distinctions, but rather generic distinctions."
Which is to say, if a program fits in a typical primetime-type genre – if it's a procedural cop show, adult animation, a sitcom – it qualifies as primetime, regardless of when and where it initially aired. If it is a usual daytime genre like soap opera, the Daytime Emmys get it.
And as web-based programming expands and attracts the Academy's attention, Leverence thinks the Emmys could well see an expanded number of categories, just as the rise of reality television increased the number of Primetime Emmys categories by a full 20 percent.
"It's very likely that we are going to see some kind of expansion to accommodate what we have coming up on the web," said Leverence (left). "With the way this niche programming is growing, you have a real opportunity to expand the field. I see it, perhaps, as a parallel trend to what we saw with Reality and Reality-Competition shows."
Any expansion, he added, will be governed by the Academy's so-called "Rule of 14." If a category falls below 14 entrants for two consecutive years, the Board of Governors is obligated to consider it for elimination or consolidation, the way they did last year when they folded the flagging Outstanding Miniseries category into a new Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category.
And if 14 shows qualify for a category that doesn't exist, the board is able to consider adding that category.
"It's kind of a respiratory system," said Leverence. "You breathe in, you breathe out. You expand here, you contract there."
The rise in reality programming, though, did not come with a commensurate reduction in any other categories, pushing the Primetime Emmys and the Primetime Creative Arts Emmys to the verge of 100 categories. So with web-based programming ready to redefine what qualifies as television, is an expansion to triple digits inevitable?
"I don't know," said Leverence with a laugh. "I think more categories are coming, but we already have 99 categories. And proliferation is kind of like inflation in a monetary system: It's something that you have to be very careful about.
"Because just as inflation decreases the value of each one of the monetary units, so does proliferation decrease the perceived value of every awards category."
(Getty Images photos by Frazer Harrison)