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How the Emmy Awards Work

Entertainment award shows may seem like little more than an opportunity for self-involved performers to pat themselves on the back, or to make political statements before an international audience. However, award ceremonies have long been a way for societies to honor members for notable achievements. Military members, academics, athletes, humanitarians, and countless other groups have awards designed to elevate and show esteem for outstanding service, innovation, or performance of duties.

The film, television, music, and other entertainment industries are not alone in their desire to honor distinguished members of their ranks, despite the fact that their award ceremonies may be more highly publicized and promoted than other groups. The Emmy Awards, in particular, focus on television and recognize excellence in national primetime (and other) programming. How does this particular award show work? Here's what you should know.

A Brief History

The first Emmy Awards were held on January 25th, 1949 at the Hollywood Athletic Club, at a time when "the home screen", as televisions were sometimes called, was just starting to take off. In early 1948, it was estimated that just over 100,000 homes had televisions.

However, this home-based form of entertainment spread quickly, with roughly 56% of American homes featuring a TV set by 1954, a number that would rise to over 83% by 1958. Today, of course, nearly every home in the country features at least one television, and many enjoy multiple televisions, complete with a variety of broadcast and streaming services delivering practically limitless programming options.

The Emmys were originally called the Immys, so named for a type of camera tube called an image orthicon tube (and nicknamed an immy). Eventually the name was changed to Emmy because of the form of statue presented to winners of the award. Designed by TV engineer Louis McManus, the statuette is in the form of a winged woman holding a model of an atom aloft.

Meant to symbolize the confluence of art and science, the female form was modeled after McManus's wife, and the name "Emmy" was considered a more suitably feminine moniker for the figurine. Today, each golden statue, made of pewter coated in copper, nickel, silver, and finally, 18-karat gold, takes 5.5 hours to make and costs $400. The Emmy award stands 16 inches tall and weighs just under five pounds. Statues are made by R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, which also makes Oscar statues for The Academy Awards.

In the nearly 70 years since the Emmys began, the most awarded primetime show is Saturday Night Live, which has received 220 nominations and an astonishing 50 wins. Perhaps this is because of the show's longevity - it has been on the air since 1975. There are several shows that have been on the air longer, including a variety of news programs, game shows, talk shows, and soap operas, just for example, but many of these do not fall under primetime programming, for which SNL holds the distinction of being the most celebrated program in Emmy history.

The Emmy Awards are administered by three sister organizations. The Television Academy, featuring over 20,000 members, is responsible for primetime programming; the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences focuses on daytime, sports, news, and documentary programming; and the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences deals with international programming. The Primetime Emmys is perhaps the most popular award show of the three, and is most commonly associated with the award.

Emmy Categorization

Television programming features a diverse array of shows, from dramatic and comedy series, to miniseries, to children's programming, to news and sports broadcasts, to talk series, and more recently, reality TV shows. Because of this, the Emmys are split into different award groups, as noted above, for primetime programming, daytime/sports/news/documentary programming, and international programming.

The categories for awards vary depending on the particular grouping programs fit into, but the categories for the 2017 Primetime Emmys included the following:

  • Outstanding Drama Series
  • Outstanding Comedy Series
  • Outstanding Limited Series
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
  • Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or TV Movie
  • Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or TV Movie
  • Outstanding Reality-Competition Program
  • Outstanding Variety Talk Series
  • Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program

There are also awards given for supporting and guest actors and actresses in the categories of drama, comedy, and limited series or TV movie. Other Emmy Award ceremonies have categories particular to the types of programs and associated individuals and groups they honor.

Nominations and Voting

Now that you know what the Emmys are, you're probably wondering about the mechanics. How do shows get nominated and who decides which programs should win each year?

In order to be eligible for nomination, programs must air on broadcast or cable television during primetime, or between the hours of 6pm and 2am, and they must have aired between the dates of June 1st of the year preceding the ceremony and May 31st in the year in which the ceremony takes place. For example, contenders for the 2017 Emmy Awards had to air in primetime between June 1st, 2016 and May 31st, 2017.

In addition, programs must have been available to at least 51% of the U.S. television market, including viewers in over 99 million households across the country. Any individual or team that has worked on an eligible program can nominate it for consideration, and this includes a fee that varies by the type of nomination and the number of people being nominated. It is common for nominees to campaign for their programs leading up to the awards, using ads to encourage viewership, increase fan base, and ultimately, convince voters to choose them.

Award categories are voted on by members of the various academies that present the awards. Membership is limited to industry professionals, who must pay a fee to participate, and they are divided into peer groups to vote within their areas of expertise. It is for this reason that award recipients often note that they are honored to be recognized by the Academy and by their peers.

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