The great Emmy debate over a merged variety series category has been solved, at least for now: The Television Academy will announce on Friday that it has decided this year to maintain separate categories for variety talk series and variety sketch series after all.
The decision to keep the two categories, reversing course from a previous plan to merge them back together, came after intense lobbying from the late night shows, their producers and their PR representatives.
The Television Academy announced in December that it would once again award talk and sketch in the same variety category, which it had done until they were split into two fields 2015. But on Thursday night, the Academy’s Board of Governors reviewed the decision and decided to reverse course and keep them separate for the 73rd Emmy Awards.
“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,” the org said in a statement. “As the Academy continues to engage with industry leaders and constituents, it will always endeavor to uphold the integrity of the competition and be as fair as possible.”
In its efforts to maintain that fairness, the Academy found itself in a bit of a conundrum: Despite the growth in talk, the number of sketch series has declined in recent years. Under the Academy’s “Rule of 25,” “if for two consecutive years there are less than 25 entries in an existing category, they may be combined into a related category.”
In the 2020 Emmy competition, variety talk had 24 submissions, while variety sketch had just 14. Under new rules implemented last year, categories with between 20 and 80 contenders compete with five nominees; for six, there must be at least 81 entrants. As a result, variety talk was reduced to five nominees, while variety sketch received just three ballot slots.
That’s what likely led to the decision to merge talk and sketch back together. But that announcement came late in the day on a Friday, catching many off-guard in the late night world, which hadn’t been aware that such a move might be in the works.
“We knew that change would come with hard decisions that wouldn’t necessarily make everyone happy,” TV Academy president/COO Maury McIntyre told Variety earlier this month. “But our goal as always, is to really maintain both the relevance and the prestige of the Emmy brand. Some of that also had to do with, how many submissions you have. We are always open to having conversations with the industry, our partners, the studios, the networks, our members, if they are having concerns about a decision we’ve made. We want to discuss it, we are absolutely open to that dialogue. And you know there are a number of changes that have happened in the rules over the years that have happened because of that. There are a number of reversals that we’ve made over the years.”
The variety talk category had already been the source of another debate: Whether it was fair to pit weekly, single topic shows against nightly talkers. The talk category already lost a nomination slot last year when it went from six to five; the likelihood of a “Saturday Night Live” nomination in the merged category would have limited the talk nominees even more. And, as many pointed out, that would have made it almost impossible for more diverse newcomers — such as Showtime’s “Desus & Mero” or Peacock’s Amber Ruffin — to make their way in. It also meant sketch shows that aren’t “SNL,” such as HBO’s “A Black Lady Sketch Show,” would be elbowed out.
“SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels recently told Variety he also didn’t think it made sense to pit his sketch comedy series against something completely different like “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.”
“I love [former ‘Daily Show’ host] Jon Stewart, and when he was in our category he won literally 10 years in a row,” Michaels said. “So there’s an entire ten years of ‘SNL’ where nothing happened. And what I’m getting at is it’s a completely different set of skills. Ours is like mounting a full show every week. I’m not asking for awards because we deserve this or that, but I only mean in the sense that it’s just a different kind of show business… So I think we should be in other performance shows, as opposed to the talk shows, which are also a whole other set of skills.”
After the December rule change announcement, the talk shows — which have an open line of communication, something that became even more active as they compared production notes at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — began mobilizing to lobby the Academy about reversing their decision.
Some of the late night shows and their producers have spent weeks drafting a letter to the Academy addressing their concerns. At one point, the movement to send a letter stalled, but it finally went out this week. Among their suggestions: If there was going to be a merged category, expand it to eight nominees.
That was likely a non-starter for the Academy, because that wouldn’t be fair to other categories that were held to the rule that the number of nominees depends on the amount of submissions. Instead, this at least keeps the separate categories unchanged from last year, and gives the org another year to come up with a more permanent solution. One idea is to keep variety talk and sketch together, but divide them into separate categories depending on if they’re weekly or daily.
Last year, Variety floated another idea, inspired by the Academy’s Los Angeles Area Emmys’ newscast awards. For that ceremony’s top prizes (such as regularly scheduled daily evening newscast), everyone can enter. Instead of being nominees, they’re all considered “candidates.” That keeps the playing field open and everyone a contender to the end. Instead of nominees, throw everyone into the variety talk race and variety sketch races — and watch things get really interesting.