Why Is Summer Such a Bad Time for Shows Competing for Emmys?

Awards Wrap Up: Summer shows are at a distinct disadvantage with voters, and spring is threatening to become the new fall for awards contenders

summer tv emmy
"The Chair," "Reservation Dogs," "Nine Perfect Strangers" (Netflix, FX, Hulu)

Summertime used to be a dead zone on TV. Back in pre-cable days, when the broadcast networks ruled the small screen, the season was a video wasteland filled with “replacement series,” usually short-lived variety shows designed as airwave placeholders until school started up again, everybody went back indoors and regular programming resumed in September.

Some spectacular, mostly forgotten schlock emerged from those fallow months — “Dean Martin Presents The Golddiggers,” “The Shields and Yarnell Show,” “Tony Orlando and Dawn,” “The Jerry Reed When You’re Hot, You’re Hot Hour” — but nothing that could be remotely considered prestige TV. Even into the 1990s, as the networks started to catch onto the potential of the summer audience — with Fox releasing a special mini-season of “Beverly Hills 90210” in July 1992 and ABC launching “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in August 1999 — it was never the time of year to unveil programming with even a modicum of Emmy potential.

One noteworthy exception was NBC’s “Seinfeld,” which debuted on July 5, 1989 and then aired four additional episodes the following summer — and earned a single Emmy nomination, in multicamera editing, for that abbreviated season before growing into a ratings and awards juggernaut.

These days, of course there is no TV season — just one year-long slog of never-ending content pumped onto the tube, not just by old-fashioned networks but by scores of cable outlets and now a multiplying array of streamers.

And yet, somehow, summertime still sucks for shows looking for an Emmy.

Thanks to the TV Academy’s weird eligibility window — which starts in June and cuts off at the end of May — a slew of otherwise nomination-worthy programming and performances that came out last summer have been all but forgotten. Remember “Nine Perfect Strangers”? The Hulu series in which Nicole Kidman yammered in an unrecognizable accent long before Julia Garner made it trendy with “Inventing Anna”?

Or Sandra Oh’s terrific turn in Netflix’s academic spoof “The Chair”?

Or FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” the sitcom about four Indigenous teenagers in Oklahoma that has a 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes

Sadly, they now seem like yesteryear’s news, especially to Emmy Awards prognosticators, who aren’t giving many of these programs a lot of love at the moment.

Of course, there are exceptions. “Loki” is popping up on some short lists, despite the Marvel spinoff premiering on Disney+ more than a year ago. Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” which premiered in August, is a solid contender. And “The White Lotus,” which started streaming on HBO last July, still has a lot of heat in the Outstanding Limited Series category, perhaps because the show resurfaced in the news recently when HBO announced a second season (which, technically, should boot “Lotus” out of the limited series category, if not for the loophole that the new season will have an entirely different cast, but whatever). The announcement of a second season gave Academy voters an oh-so-timely reminder of what a genius piece of work Mike White’s satirical take-down of contemporary social mores truly was, even if it did premiere all the way back in the middle of 2021.

In a lot of ways, the problem that early-premiering TV shows struggle with is the very same one big-screen early releases deal with during Oscar season — the sooner in the year a film comes out, the less likely it will be remembered for a nomination. Film studios’ workaround has been to back-load the premieres for its most Oscar-worthy movies towards the end of the calendar year, when voters are most likely to be paying attention, and there are signs that television may be attempting a similar strategy.

This past April and May, just before the Emmy eligibility cut-off, a slew of new seasons made their debut, including HBO’s “Barry,” Netflix’s “Stranger Things” and AMC’s “Better Call Saul” — all serious Emmy contenders. And there’s been plenty of late-arriving, nomination-trolling new content, as well, like Starz’s “Gaslit,” Hulu’s “Candy” and Apple TV’s “Slow Horses” and “Shining Girls.”

In other words, if television follows film’s lead, spring could end up becoming the new fall as the networks and streamers push their fanciest projects to the end of the Emmy eligibility cycle. Of course, that still leaves summer shows at a distinct disadvantage. But there is some hope: Remember, “The Captain and Tennille Special” (an August release) did end up snagging one Emmy nom in 1977, for Outstanding Achievement in Video Tape Editing.