You wouldn't compare a McDonald's Extra Value Meal to an expensive dinner at a five-star restaurant. But that's the predicament Emmy Awards voters increasingly face in such key categories as comedy and drama. (Nominations will be announced July 10; NBC airs the ceremony, hosted by Seth Meyers, on August 25.)
As primetime splinters into subgenres, shows with little in common must compete in the same races, and there's no room at all for plenty of popular shows, particularly from the broadcast networks.
Those apples-to-oranges comparisons can be especially stark in comedy, where traditional multi-camera shows like The Big Bang Theory face off against single-camera critics' darlings like Parks and Recreation and Louie. At least that still mostly makes sense: They're all still pure comedy, even though the production methods are completely different. Muddying the waters are shows like Nurse Jackie and Orange is the New Black, which are not easily classifiable, leaving their producers and networks to decide where to compete (both are in the comedy category).
This year, the Television Academy allowed Showtime's Shameless to switch from drama — where it has competed since 2011 — to comedy. Shameless has never won an Emmy, and the drama category is more competitive than comedy, both factors that likely promoted the move. Plus, executive producer John Wells has said he views the show as a comedy and has even hired ex-stand-ups as writers.
Normally, once a show picks a spot, it has to stay there. But "John came to the awards committee and asked for special dispensation," says John Leverence, the academy's awards senior vice president.
Leverence says such a move has happened just twice before, as Moonlighting and Ally McBeal switched back and forth between comedy and drama. "I was just looking at Shameless, and the things that happen to these people are absolutely horrible," he says. "But it's done in an absurdist way that's actually pretty funny."
HBO's decision to submit True Detective in the drama competition has also caused some grumbling. Because Season 2 will feature a new cast and take place in a new setting, some rivals feel it should be treated as a miniseries.
But True Detective is considered a series because executive producer Nic Pizzolatto has a "created by" credit on the show. Per the Writers Guild of America, that's the distinguishing characteristic of a TV series vs. a miniseries or movie. (Miniseries writers are not given "created by" credit, according to the Guild.)
FX's American Horror Story was in a similar predicament a few years ago. Executive producer Ryan Murphy receives a "created by" credit, but successfully petitioned to have AHS compete as a miniseries. Leverence says the academy gives some leeway for shows to pick their category when they're a hybrid like those two examples. But that's left a bad taste with some competitors: In its Emmy campaign for The Good Wife, CBS took aim at short-order dramas like True Detective and its cable brethren, noting that it's an unfair fight: Good Wife had to maintain a level quality for a full 22-episode broadcast run, while most cable shows compete with 10 or 13 episodes.
The academy regularly debates splitting best drama and comedy into more awards, such as a "dramedy" category. This year, it may have set a precedent for such a rejiggering by creating two slots for noncompetitive reality series: One for "structured" shows (like Antiques Roadshow) and one for "unstructured" (like Duck Dynasty).
The decision to split them came after the academy received 92 noncompetitive reality submissions last year. (Competitive reality shows like Survivor already have their own category.) Also new this year, the Outstanding Voice-Over Performer competition has now been split into two: One for voice-over characters (like animation) and one for voice-over narration (like documentaries).
Per the Emmy bylaws, it takes only 14 potential entrants to create a new category. If reality can do it, why not comedy or drama? That would make for more winners and happy producers. "I wish there was an hourlong category and a half-hour category," says Orange creator Jenji Kohan, who thinks TV has evolved beyond "comedy" and "drama" classifications. "I wish everyone wasn't so desperate to label things."
But Leverence says the Academy abhors the idea of "awards proliferation" and warns that more expansion would devalue the Emmy. There are now 106 separate awards, up 20 percent from 15 years ago, mostly due to the influx of reality programs. Leverence expects that number to increase as more streaming programs, such as House of Cards, a best-drama nominee last year (and winner for directing) change the way TV is produced — perhaps necessitating more new categories.