By Jack Egan
As with most of the creative arts categories, the waynominees for the four art-direction Emmy awards are selected and thefinal winners are chosen has been left up to a peer group of insiders.
Thatmeans those most knowledgeable — the section of the Television Academyof Arts & Sciences made up of production designers, art directorsand set decorators — have a lot of leeway in deciding just what showsqualify for nomination and how ballots are cast. The four awards arefor achievement on a multi-camera series, single-camera series,miniseries or television movie and variety, music program or special.
“Allmembers of the peer group, approximately 330, have an opportunity tolook at the complete list of anyone who put up a program fornomination,” says John Shaffner, vice chairman for the academy and thesecond VP of the board of the Art Directors Guild. Limiting voting to apeer group hasn’t eliminated controversy, especially with regard to thescope and scale of the shows pitted against each other in eachcategory. “It’s not just a question of apples and oranges, it’ssometimes apples and coconuts,” says Thomas Walsh, president of the ArtDirectors Guild. He was nominated in 2005 and 2006 in the single-cameracategory for his production design for Desperate Housewives, the hitcomedy-drama, but lost consecutively to two HBO series, Deadwood andRome.
Beyond some inevitable sour grapes, Walsh is lamenting thetendency for even informed voters to go for historic period pieces overcontemporary settings. “It’s hard to do contemporary well, but itdoesn’t jump out at you. That’s not our job.”
The main criterionguiding voters should be how well the setting plays into the plot andnarrative. “It should be about storytelling, not about, ‘Hey, look atme,’” says Walsh. “That’s why you hope you have a non-biased group ofyour peers who aren’t just looking for something handsome.”
Athree-step process is followed for all four art-direction categories.First a list of all eligible nominees is drawn up based on award-worthysubmissions that meet the qualifications. For returning series, acomplex formula is applied; it basically requires that two-thirds ofthe episodes submitted consist of new sets. The reason is not so muchto let new shows have a shot at an Emmy as to eliminate a past problem.Sometimes Emmy-winning art directors would leave a show, and find thattheir replacements, although they didn’t contribute much that was new,would get nominated and sometimes win for their predecessor’s sets.
Inthe second stage, all 330 members of the art direction section areeligible to cast their ballots for shows on the list. The topvote-getters become the official nominees. Normally there are fivenominees per Emmy but that varies. This year there are only twonominees for best art direction in a multi-camera series. That’sbecause so few shows use that camera set-up these days. Meanwhile,there are six single-camera nominees and seven for variety and musicprograms this year. “It’s an anomaly because we had some ties so wedecided to include more nominees,” says Shaffner.
In the finalstage, a pared-down number of volunteers watch the nominated shows andcast the crucial votes that determine the winners. These are secretlytabulated and get announced at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards. Severalyears ago the system was changed to let panel members watch at homeinstead of coming together on an August weekend at the televisionacademy for a group viewing.
“In the past, before we made it anat-home judging process, we used to have 15 to 20 people whovolunteered as judges in each of the categories,” says Shaffner. “Nowwe have at least twice as many voters.”
Written by Jack Egan