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Sorry, Emmys – Here’s a Category That Really Shouldn’t Exist

Does the Television Academy really need to keep the variety-sketch category alive so that “Saturday Night Live” can get an extra award every year?


One of the things that jumps out about this year’s Emmy race is that the Television Academy has a category that according to its own rules should not exist. But that category is also home to the most-nominated and winningest show in Emmy history, so how do you get rid of it?

The category is Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. This year a grand total of eight shows qualified: “The Amber Ruffin Show,” “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” “PAUSE With Sam Jay,” “That Damn Michael Che,” “True Story With Ed and Randall,” “Whose Line Is it Anyway?,” “Ziwe” and the big one, “Saturday Night Live.” Emmy rules say that a category with eight qualifying programs gets only two nominations, which means that barring a tie that could expand the field, the nominees will be “SNL” and one other show, most likely “A Black Lady Sketch Show.”

Those were also the two nominees in the category last year, when it had all of nine qualifying shows.

But the Emmy rules also say something else about categories with so few qualifying shows. Under the heading “Rule of Twenty-five,” the rules specify that if for two consecutive years there are 25 qualifying entries that are not adequately represented in an existing category, the board may create a new category.

And then it adds this: “If for two consecutive years there are less than 25 entries in an existing category, they may, at the Board’s discretion, be combined into a related category (in consultation with the applicable peer group).”

The variety-sketch category hasn’t just had fewer than 25 entries for two years in a row – it has never, in its eight years of existence as a category, had more than 20. It hit that high-water mark twice, in 2016 and 2019, but otherwise it had 17 in 2015, 18 in 2018 and 2020, 19 in 2018, nine in 2021 and eight in 2022.

The Rule of 25 used to be the Rule of 14, a much easier bar to reach. But under current rules, the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category should not exist. To keep it alive feels like little more than a convenient way to keep giving Emmys to “Saturday Night Live,” which has won in the category for five years in a row and holds the Emmy record with 328 nominations and 95 wins — and conversely, to keep “SNL” out of the category where it could conceivably beat a late-night talk show.

In fact, the Television Academy agreed that the category shouldn’t exist back in 2020, when its board voted to merge variety sketch and variety talk into a single category. But that decision immediately met with a huge outcry from the variety community: Talk shows didn’t want to compete with (and lose nomination slots to) the flashier likes of “SNL,” while sketch shows remembered that prior to the two categories being split, a talk show had won in the single Outstanding Variety Series category for 17 years in a row: David Letterman for five years, then “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” for 10, then “The Colbert Report” for two.

(The mighty “SNL” went 0-for-11 in that stretch, and wasn’t nominated the other six years.)

A couple of months after announcing the consolidation, the board reversed its decision and separated the category with a statement that read, in part, “While the Academy remains concerned about the number of series produced and the relatively small pool of entries in the variety sketch genre, it acknowledges that the differences between variety sketch and talk programs merit separate consideration.”

But that leaves them with the same problem, which is getting worse: There aren’t enough variety-sketch programs to sustain a category.

Meanwhile, the number of variety-talk series has been dropping, too, to the point where it hasn’t reached that magic number of 25 since 2015. It hovered around 20 for a few years, hit 24 in 2020 and dropped to 19 this year, meaning that it will lose a nomination slot and drop down to four nominees instead of five.

Yes, there’s a big difference between “Saturday Night Live” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” the two shows that always win when the categories are separate. But there’s also a big difference between, say, “The Survivor” and “Chip and Dale: Rescue Rangers,” both of which compete for Outstanding Television Movie, or between “Deadliest Catch” and “The Kardashians,” which vie in the unstructured reality category. That’s just the Emmys, where even 118 categories aren’t enough to contain all the contenders in a clear, clean manner.

And that means that sometimes, things have to get messy, and apples have to face off against oranges, or watermelons against bananas, or maybe even Kate McKinnon against Jimmy Kimmel.


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