How the Emmy Awards Work

By: Pamela Nelson  | 
The Emmy statuette represents art and science. See more Emmy pictures.

Television is such a big part of our lives. Almost every home in the United States (more than 99 million of them) has a television, and Americans, on average, watch about three hours of television a day. We sometimes plan our lives around our favorite shows. The popularity of TV has spawned cultural shifts as well as some great technology, such as VCRs, cable and satellite television, and high-definition TV.

Our love of competition finds an outlet in television, as well. We find it exciting to watch shows in which we don't know the outcome. When the Emmy Awards are announced, millions of people tune in to see how their favorite shows fare. A win can boost an actor's career or cause a show's ratings to skyrocket. Sometimes, an Emmy award can give a low-rated but well-made show a whole new lease on life. Back in the 1980s, NBC's "Hill Street Blues," a police drama series that was critically acclaimed but hadn't drawn a broad audience, won Emmys for acting, writing and best dramatic series. The show was saved from cancellation.


But just how do the Emmys work? Who nominates shows and performers, and who votes on those nominations? In this article, we'll take a look at the Emmys and explain what goes on before the envelopes are opened live on stage during the Emmy Award broadcast.





Who Awards the Emmys?

Stephen Spielberg accepting an Emmy for "Band of Brothers" in 2002
Photo courtesy Academy of Television Arts & Sciences

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS), headquartered in Los Angeles, gives out the Emmy awards for prime time programs. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS), based in New York City, handles the awards for daytime shows and for news and documentary programs. When you hear television award winners say, "I'd like to thank the academy," they are referring to either the ATAS or the NATAS.

We'll focus here on the prime time awards. Members of the ATAS, which was founded in 1946, work in the television industry. These are the people who vote on the awards. They pay a fee to be a member of the academy. The members are divided into peer groups, determined by specific areas of expertise within the industry. For example, performers are in one peer group, makeup artists and hair stylists are in another, and camera and videotape operators are in another. Nominees sometimes say that they are honored to be recognized by their peers; this is because it is the peer groups that vote in the first part of the Emmy voting procedure, narrowing the list of nominees.


The academy has an Awards Committee that handles the Emmys every year. The awards for prime time programs are presented in August or September, and to be eligible, shows had to be aired on broadcast or cable television during prime time (6 p.m. to 2 a.m.) between June1 and May 31. Also, they had to be seen in markets representing at least 51 percent of the television viewers in the United States. People who worked on eligible shows can nominate themselves for awards. Teams of people can enter in more than one category as long as each entry is for a different program. The entrants have to pay a fee, the amount of which is based on whether the nomination is commercial, individual or for a program, and the size of the team for team entries. Entrants can mail or fax in their entries.

Television producers often advertise in the trade press before the Emmy nominations are turned in, trying to get voters to notice their shows. And, of course, after the nominations are announced, more ads go out as the producers promote their shows' nominations.

The Emmy awards' categories correspond roughly to the peer groups and include specialties like: animation, art direction, casting, choreography, cinematography, commercials, costuming/costume design, directing, electronic camera work, engineering development, hair styling, lighting direction (electronic), main title design, makeup, music, nonfiction, performing, picture editing, program categories, sound mixing, sound editing, special visual effects, technical direction, video, voice-over performance and writing. And within each of the broad classifications, there are awards for achievement in more specific categories, such as "outstanding directing in a comedy series" or "outstanding lead actress in a drama series."A complete list is available at the Emmy Web site.


Who Votes for the Emmys?

Shrine auditorium, home of the Emmy Awards
Photo courtesy CNN

After the deadline for entries, ballots with all of the qualified entries are mailed to academy members. Each peer group member votes in his own category -- performers for performers, directors for directors -- and everyone votes in the program categories, such as best comedy series and best miniseries. The members send their marked paper ballots to an independent accounting firm, Ernst & Young, to be counted. The top vote-getters in each category -- usually five, but there can be fewer -- are then announced as the nominees.

The academy asks for volunteers among the members to judge the nominees and choose the best in each category. The volunteer judges are grouped by peers, too, and the number of voters in each category varies. But again, everyone votes in the outstanding program categories. In years past, judging panels met in Los Angeles and watched all of the nominated shows and performances in a two-day marathon. Rod Serling, the prolific writer behind the "Twilight Zone" series, devised the judging panel idea in the 1960s, when he was president of the academy. He and others wanted to make sure that the judges actually watched the nominees, rather than just voting for their favorites.


Putting up decorations outside Shrine auditorium, for the 55th Annual Emmy Awards
Photo courtesy CNN

Judging rules can change based on changes in the industry and the needs of the voting body. For example, in 2000, the academy decided to allow members to volunteer to watch tapes of the nominees in their own homes and on their own schedules. This meant that more people could vote in the final process; television critics and others had criticized the former voting procedure, saying that only older people with more time on their hands (that is, not active performers, directors, technicians) would volunteer to participate in an inconvenient, time-consuming judging process. The critics said that the old voting procedure led to some of the best and most daring shows going unrecognized, because the judging panels were older and more conservative. But opponents of the new, more relaxed judging process say that there is no guarantee that the voters will watch the tapes. Essentially, the members are on the honor system.

Once the volunteer voters have mailed their ballots to Ernst & Young, the firm counts them, keeping the winners' names secret and secure until the awards are broadcast. On the show, a member or two from the accounting firm will be introduced. These representatives will keep the envelopes with them until the presenters actually carry them out on stage.

For more information on the Emmys and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Originally Published: Sep 11, 2000

Emmy Award FAQ

What TV show has won the most Emmy Awards?
Saturday Night Live has the most Emmy Awards with 44 wins and 199 nominations.
What day is the Emmy Awards?
The awards for prime time programs are presented in August or September, and to be eligible, shows had to be aired on broadcast or cable television during prime time (6 p.m. to 2 a.m.) between June 1 and May 31.
How much is an Emmy award worth?
CNBC estimates an Emmy award is worth about $153,126 if it were made of solid gold.
What are the ratings for the Emmys?
When the Emmy Awards are announced, millions of people tune in to see how their favorite shows fare.
What does the Emmy Award stand for?
The original name for the award was the Immy, a nickname for the image orthicon tube, part of an early type of camera; but the academy began referring to it as the Emmy because that more feminine name suited the statuette.