Two tiny controversies seem to be erupting with regard to The Late Show With David Letterman and its Emmy nominations this year,
or lack thereof. Both relate to Letterman's moving 9/17 broadcast, his first following the tragedies of 9/11, the one on which Dan Rather broke
into tears. The Late Show was nominated in the category of "Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series." The way the process
works, the nominated entries must submit a tape of an episode for the judges to view so they can determine who gets the Emmy. As recounted here in The New York Observer, Letterman's show submitted the 9/17
broadcast and some folks think that's tacky or perhaps exploitive. The other controversy appeared in a column by David Bianculli in The New
York Daily News which I won't link to because they charge money to read it. Basically, it complains that...
In the category of Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, for the period June 1, 2001, to May 31, 2002, David
Letterman was not nominated. This is the man who gave television one of its most important entertainment hours of the entire season: his Sept.
17 "Late Show With David Letterman" on CBS, six days after the terrorist attacks on his adopted city and home base.
I think both issues are pretty frivolous and I wonder if everyone really understands the procedure by which Emmy Awards are nominated
and awarded. Basically, there are three stages to receiving an Emmy...
One is the submission. The show or individual submits whatever they believe qualifies in a given category. So if it's a
category for Outstanding Performance By An Individual, David Letterman's people submit his name, in effect saying, "We think David should be
considered in this category." If it's a category for a series (i.e., "Outstanding Series"), they submit the name of the show. If
it's a category for an individual episode, they submit the episode number and the date. A screening committee then rules on whether each
submission qualifies in its category, eliminates those that don't, then compiles the nominating ballots.
That brings us to the second stage: The nomination. Ballots go out. Ads are purchased. A lot of us get tons of tapes and
DVDs in the mail. (This year, Everyone Loves Raymond sent every voter both a tape and a DVD of two episodes and F/X sent us a box of
tapes that lit up with a ring of battery-powered lights when you opened it.) Voters throughout the Academy vote on the list of all eligible
entrants, checking off their choices. The ballots are returned and tabulated, and the top vote-getters in each categories become the
nominees. So if someone or some show doesn't get a nomination, it means either that (a) it wasn't submitted or (b) it didn't get
enough votes from members of the Academy. I would guess that (b) is the case in well more than 99% of the glaring omissions.
The third stage is the final voting: The nominees are asked to submit tapes that can be screened by the Blue Ribbon judging
committees. If the nomination is for an individual, they're asked to send over tapes of what they consider their best performances. If
it's for a show, they send over a couple of their best episodes. If it's for a specific episode, they send over tapes of that episode.
The judges vote and the Emmy gets awarded. End of story.
Letterman's show was nominated in four categories: Writing, direction, technical direction and "Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy
Series." As mentioned, they've reportedly submitted Dave's September 17 show as an example in the last category and it's bothering some folks,
who consider it the exploitation of something that shouldn't be exploited. I don't know that I have an opinion on that but I'm guessing that it
will work and it's not a big deal.
(By the way, because folks always wonder about this: Except when the Emmy is for a specific episode, the clips that are shown on the
Emmy broadcast are not necessarily from the submitted episode. So they may or may not show a clip from that episode on the awards show.)
Now then. The piece in the Daily News makes what I consider a very silly statement about the fact that Letterman wasn't
nominated as a performer...
The executive committee of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences should rethink the unfairness of the competition in this
particular category. But before that, they should look at themselves in the mirror and accept the guilt and shame that ought to come from
allowing such a pivotal TV performance to go unrecognized.
This is silly because, even as the category is defined, Jon Stewart got a nomination. Does anyone think that there's something
wrong with a process that puts Jon Stewart and David Letterman in the same category? No? Well, that's the only thing that the executive
committee can control...the way the categories are defined. If the voters didn't vote for Letterman in sufficient number, it's hardly a sign of
"guilt and shame" on behalf of the administrators of the awards. (Or there's another possibility — that Letterman wasn't submitted
— which wouldn't be the exec committee's fault, either.)
It is the perhaps-unfortunate nature of any kind of competition in which human beings vote that, sometimes, they don't vote the way you
think they should. This applies to award competitions but also to things like electing presidents, senators and governors...all of which
involve a vastly more mature selection process and one which most voters probably approach with more consideration. When someone moans that the
Oscar or Emmy or Grammy went to the wrong person, I always want to ask, "Do you think the right person is always elected to public office? If
not, why would you expect that something as inconsequential as an entertainment award be decided by a flawless procedure?"
Yes, the Academy could have reconfigured the category rules in a manner that would have made it more likely...perhaps even guaranteed
that Letterman would have been nominated. But that would almost certainly have meant breaking two categories — male and female —
into four, creating two more Emmy awards.
This is one of the problems that the Emmy Awards face: There are too damn many of them. Every time someone doesn't get a
nomination they think they deserve, they petition the Academy to break out some job description and lower the bar. It's like if I don't get
nominated so I run in and lobby to create a new category for "Outstanding script by a 6'3" half-Jewish kid who previously wrote Porky Pig
comic books." The funny thing is that, in the past, the Academy has occasionally given in and configured a new award that seems slanted to
favor one potential winner...and when they've done this, someone else has popped up to win the first one.
None of this is very important. Nothing about entertainment awards is very important. But if we're going to have them,
let's just play by the rules and not get bothered when that doesn't yield the result we think it should. David Letterman has a shelf full of
Emmy statuettes and will probably pick up another for Outstanding Series. Somehow...call me reckless...I think the world can survive him not
winning this year for Individual Performance.