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Peak TV bonanza complicates Emmy goal of honoring the best



Eager to root for viewer favorites “Yellowstone,” “NCIS” or “Young Sheldon” during the Emmy Awards? Save your breath.

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

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

“When the Emmys were created more than 70 years ago, there were so few shows. The public was familiar with what was being nominated,” said TV producer-writer William Rosenthal. That remained the case for most of the 20th century, but today it’s “a whole different game, with more than 500 series, and also international series.”

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

The crush of programming means that even worthy shows struggle for recognition.

“You would have thought this bounty of quality would have been wonderful for the Emmys, but it’s become one of their most significant challenges,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. “What happens when an award that was originally designed to pick out the high points in what was called the ‘idiot box’ suddenly has more high points than they can possibly know what to do with?”

Which begs the question: Given the many options splintering the TV audience, how can an awards show draw a crowd?

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

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

How to accomplish that? “Put a bit of ‘Law & Order’ in there for the people, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” said Stewart, using the long-running franchise as shorthand for crowd favorites. “We want people to recognize their TV, not our TV, not just those 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 both shows also conveniently on host network NBC).

The nominations winnowing process was particularly brutal this year. The farewell seasons of network favorites “black-ish” and “This Is Us” were snubbed, and FX’s “Atlanta” was left out of the best comedy series category after two previous nods (although star-creator Donald Glover is up for an acting trophy, which he won in 2017).

Staples like NBC’s “Chicago Fire” or CBS’ “NCIS” — the No. 1 network drama with an average 10 million viewers last season — are awards longshots in any field, but particularly among TV’s endless wave of innovative storytelling. The same goes for Paramount’s “Yellowstone,” well-crafted but not seen as cutting edge, which leaves even its deserving cast members out in the cold.

“It seems like a big oversight that Kelly Reilly hasn’t been 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. Reilly’s performance as tough but troubled Beth Dutton in the modern Western is “really fantastic,” he said.

Emmy nods largely favored shows from big-spending streaming services like Netflix, among the drivers of TV’s explosive growth, alongside relatively old-guard 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,” stands alone as a broadcast 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 TV, before DVRs and streaming, Emmy recognition could help make a show. The groundbreaking police drama “Hill Street Blues” is a vivid example cited by Syracuse’s Thompson.

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.

The Emmys hunt still triggers splashy “for your consideration” promotional campaigns aimed at academy voters. But the overloaded pop culture environment has dimmed the appeal of Hollywood awards ceremonies across the board, as ebbing viewership proves, and maybe the cachet of the trophies themselves.

Emmy producer Stewart offers a counter perspective to the latter. Statistically, he said, the odds of winning one of the 25 Emmys to be given Monday are overwhelmingly long.

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



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