Peak TV windfall complicates Emmy’s goal of honoring the best

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Eager to seek out viewer favorites “Yellowstone,” “NCIS,” or “Young Sheldon” at the Emmy Awards? Save your breath.

They and other ratings hits failed to make a dent in the nominations for Monday’s ceremony. Instead, the loot went to shows that are critical darlings or boast a higher degree of cool, “Stranger Things” and “Squid Game” among them.

While it can be frustrating for fans, industry pundits view such omissions as a sign that television’s most prestigious honor is doing its job, or trying to do its job, in the daunting age of the overload of “peak TV”.

“When the Emmys were created over 70 years ago, there were so few shows. The public knew what was nominated,” said producer and television writer William Rosenthal. That has remained the case for most of the 20th century, but today it is “a whole different game, with over 500 series, and also international series.”

Netflix’s “Squid Game” is a good example, a South Korean drama that’s the first non-English language nominee for top series honors. The dystopian horror story competes with seven other acclaimed shows, including “Succession” and “Severance.”

The crush of programming means that even worthy shows struggle to be recognized.

“You would have thought that premium quality would have been wonderful for the Emmys, but it became one of their biggest challenges,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at the Emmys. Syracuse University. “What happens when an award that was originally designed to select strengths from what used to be called the ‘idiot box’ suddenly has more strengths than they can figure out what to do with? “

Which begs the question: given the many options that divide TV audiences, how can an awards show attract a crowd?

The ceremony is not limited to spotlighting only the nominated shows, said returning executive producers Reginald Hudlin and Ian Stewart. The awards air Monday at 8 p.m. EDT on NBC, with “Saturday Night Live’s” Kenan Thompson as host.

“The writing, the filmmaking, the acting that you see on TV is amazing,” Hudlin said. “We want to celebrate all of TV…the things we love to watch, whatever they are, yay!”

How to achieve it? “Put on a little ‘Law & Order’ for people, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Stewart said, using the longtime franchise as shorthand for crowd favorites. “We want people to recognize their TV, not our TV, not just the things that are nominated but they’ve never heard of or don’t subscribe to the streaming service.”

One approach, inviting actors from non-nominated shows to serve as presenters, is already evident: Mariska Hargitay of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and Christopher Meloni of “Law & Order: Organized Crime” will do just that (with the two also conveniently shows on the NBC host network).

The nomination winnowing process has been particularly brutal this year. Farewell seasons of network favorites “black-ish” and “This Is Us” were snubbed, and FX’s “Atlanta” was dropped from the Top Comedy Series category after two previous nods (although the star creator Donald Glover is set for a trophy acting role, which he won in 2017).

Must-haves like NBC’s “Chicago Fire” or CBS’s “NCIS” — the network’s No. 1 drama with an average of 10 million viewers last season — are long-standing accolades across the board, but especially among television’s endless wave of innovative storytelling. The same goes for Paramount’s well-crafted but not considered cutting-edge “Yellowstone,” which leaves even its deserving members out in the cold.

“It seems like a big oversight that Kelly Reilly wasn’t nominated,” said Rosenthal, whose credits include “Nurse Jackie” and who is an assistant professor at Chapman University’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. Beth Dutton in the modern western is “really fantastic,” he said.

Emmy largely nods to shows from big-budget streaming services like Netflix being among the drivers of TV’s explosive growth, alongside relatively old premium cable channels including HBO and Showtime. Of the 21 nominees in the best drama, comedy and limited series categories, 11 are on streaming services and seven are on premium cable.

ABC’s comedy “Abbott Elementary” is the lone nominee as a network series nominee. Two series nods went to basic cable: AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and FX’s “What We Do in the Shadows.”

When broadcast and daily ratings ruled television, before DVRs and streaming, Emmy recognition could help make a show. The groundbreaking crime drama “Hill Street Blues” is a vivid example cited by Thompson of Syracuse.

It was among the lowest-rated series when it was showered in 1981 with a then-record eight Emmys, he said, and spared cancellation. It aired until 1987 and won four consecutive Best Drama Series awards.

Emmy hunting always triggers splashy “for your consideration” promotional campaigns aimed at academy voters. But the crowded environment of pop culture has dampened the allure of Hollywood awards shows across the board, as evidenced by the drawback of viewership, and perhaps the cachet of the trophies themselves.

Emmy producer Stewart offers a counterpoint to the latter. Statistically, he said, the odds of winning one of the 25 Emmys to be handed out on Monday are extremely long.

“Let’s not forget this is an incredible, incredible achievement,” he said.

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Carol N. Valencia