Deconstructing Emmys 2019: Why ‘Game of Thrones’ Flourished While Other Shows Fumbled

The Emmy nominations have been announced. All your television favorites have/have not been nominated for awards they do/don’t so richly deserve and you’re already well on your way to making peace/initiating a lifelong blood feud with this year’s Emmy class. Now you’re interested in the bigger picture.

But you’re looking at a crop of nominees which run the gamut from the most celebrated drama series of all time, to an intimate British comedy masterpiece from the mind of a burgeoning creative genius, to two profoundly different limited series that shine a light on the profound ways that humanity fails to take care of its own.

What’s the common thread that pulls these disparate shows together? In a year crowded with newcomers and veterans, how did shows find a way to stand out? And beyond all else, what does it all mean?

It all begins with the ballot.

Scratch that, it begins (and ends) as all things do, with Peak TV.

In June, IndieWire reported on the sprawling Emmy nomination ballot which winnowed nearly 500 scripted shows down to a mere 270-some potential comedy and drama series nominees, a still incomprehensible number of shows for voters to sift through in order to determine what’s worthy of being nominated.

That same month, the TV Academy announced that it had disqualified several members of the performers peer group for vote organization, employing a block voting strategy for the first round of Emmy voting.

Now, in that case, the members were likely engaging in quid pro quo vote trading, but with that in mind, it seems clear that TV Academy voters still engaged in block voting of a sort: If voters saw a show, they voted for it. And most likely, if they used to watch a show, they voted for it. And if they voted for it, they voted for it in everything.

This is how “Game of Thrones” ends up bringing in 32 nominations. Everyone in Hollywood, at one juncture or another, has seen an episode of “Game of Thrones” or, even more likely, worked with someone who worked on “Game of Thrones” at some point. There is a level of goodwill towards the show that revolutionized the industry and despite intense critical and audience backlash, Hollywood insiders opted to celebrate not just the craftspeople behind the scenes, but fully 10 actors who’ve labored for years on the series, sometimes with very little to show for it.

(At least, I hope holdover voting is why “Game of Thrones” flourished during the Emmy nomination period. I’d hate to think that voters actually watched the final season and thought it was better than some of the other dramas on television.)

But “Game of Thrones” had absolutely monster ratings and dominated conversation for the two months it aired and well beyond. People voted for “Game of Thrones” because they watched it. Or they used to watch it. Or because it was the only thing anyone talked about for the better part of the year.

It, more than any other series, is the culmination of the three-pronged theory to the 2019 Emmy nominations. People watched it. People talked about it. People always vote for it.

Some series found success with only two of the three prongs, like two of the best performing limited series, both of which entered the voting period riding high on ratings and buzz. HBO’s “Chernobyl,” which scored 19 nominations, had ratings that steadily grew from its May 6 debut, resulting in over 8 million viewers, better than fellow HBO offering “Sharp Objects” and just behind Season 3 of “True Detective.”

Similarly, according to Netflix, Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” was watched by more than 23 million Netflix accounts in the first seven weeks of release and while the streaming service is always cagey about how they calculate their statistics, the reality is that the limited series nabbed 16 nominations when all was said and done.

By that same token, there are shows that got by on chatter (and quality) alone. Those shows that everyone in Los Angeles and beyond couldn’t shut up about, regardless of how big the ratings were or weren’t. The second season of Prime Video’s “Fleabag,” from the brilliant mind of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” from the powerhouse duo of Leslye Headland and Natasha Lyonne both had ridiculous amounts of buzz when voting opened in June, that paid off handsomely for both, with the former scoring 11 noms and the latter grabbing 13.

Then there are those shows that are nominated because of inertia. Which is not to say that they aren’t great (in some cases) but rather that the TV Academy is reluctant to change once they’ve found something they like. It’s how NBC stalwart “Saturday Night Live” easily accumulates well over a dozen nominees annually or how fellow NBC stablemate “This Is Us” has settled into earning eight-ish nominations per year. Or how, despite the wealth of late night programming currently inhabiting airwaves, HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” continues to dominate its competition.

It’s even why “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a series that only had three episodes eligible to compete in individual categories – meaning no competing for series or major acting categories – ended up garnering the second most nominations for a drama series, after the aforementioned dragon show. (Granted, those three episodes included the best episode of Season 2 in “Holly,” but still.)

But there are exceptions. You have BBC America’s “Killing Eve” breaking through for a second season that critics and fans both found disappointing compared to its first, because the Emmys can get a little gun-shy about new talent. See also the zero nominations for the first season of “Fleabag” back in 2017.

Consider also the case of “Schitt’s Creek,” which earned its first ever Emmy nominations this year for its fifth season. The series had buzz, sure, but that word-of-mouth spread exponentially once the Pop series arrived on Netflix in 2017, boosting both its profile and its audience.

And you can’t forget the money. Big money spenders like HBO and Netflix dominated nominations for another year, with the cable giant earning 137 nods to the streaming provider’s 117, but even more interesting is the breakdown of how that money was spent, with HBO focusing the bulk of its Variety and THR ad buys on “Game of Thrones” and “Succession,” to great effect. Netflix’s buys in the trades were less successful, with their energies focused on “Ozark” and “Bodyguard,” resulting in nine nominations for the former and just two for the British spy drama.

The Emmys are a delicious mess, as is anything involving more than the opinions of 24,000 people. But ultimately, this is why shows get nominated at the Emmys. The order by which to make sense of the noise.

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