Genre TV and awards recognition

Feature Louisa Mellor 18 Jun 2012 - 07:37

Veteran film and TV producer Gale Anne Hurd has raised the familiar gripe of genre shows deserving more awards recognition

“You have a better chance of winning the lottery or the Triple Crown* than you do of winning an acting or best drama series Emmy for a genre TV series. Is that fair?”

That was the question posed last week by The Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd, and, regardless of whether her asking it is a sneaky equivalent of those glossy ‘For your Emmy consideration’ banner ads that pop up online around this time each year, she makes a decent point.

“Dark shows with morally challenged leading characters”, Hurd noted in her article for The Hollywood Reporter, “will be at the head of the class, especially if they’re period, or on AMC or HBO.” It’s not hard to decipher to which programmes Hurd’s alluding. US shows led by a crystal meth-cooking chemistry teacher, a handsome sixties ad man, and a corrupt Prohibition-era treasurer (and before that, a New Jersey mob boss, the U.S President, and two funeral director brothers) have dominated the Emmys over the past decade, but is Hurd right that sci-fi, horror, and fantasy shows have been left out of the major categories?

Yup. More or less. Though the Visual Effects Emmy category - historically the place that the Star Treks, X-Files, Battlestar Galacticas and Heroes have been patted on the back - is a different story, that’s not the point Hurd’s making. At last year’s Emmys, Peter Dinklage went home with the Outstanding Supporting Actor award for his role as the wry, sharp-tongued Tyrion Lannister in fantasy series Game of Thrones, but in the decade preceding that, a handful of performer nominations and the odd win for Lost, Alias, Joan of Arcadia, and Medium are the closest the Emmys have come to rewarding so-called genre telly in the main groups.

Hurd’s gripe is by no means a new one. Back in the early seventies the Saturn Awards were conceived to make up for the dearth of recognition for US sci-fi, fantasy and horror TV and film, and now four decades on, with more and more of what’s often seen as “geek” culture bleeding into mainstream entertainment, why haven’t official plaudits caught up?

Could it just be a question of odds? US TV channels are flooded with straight drama, and legal/medical procedurals show no signs of losing popularity with audiences. Is it because there is simply a greater volume of such dramas made than there are sci-fi or fantasy series that fewer genre shows are nominated?

Let’s do some maths, probably badly. Of the 87 eligible shows on this year’s Emmy ballot for Outstanding Drama Series, approximately 18 (Alcatraz, Alphas, Awake, Being Human, Falling Skies, Fringe, Game of Thrones, Grimm, Once Upon a Time, Person of Interest, The Secret Circle, Supernatural, Terra Nova, Touch, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead, and Warehouse 13, apologies if I’ve missed one or two) can be considered fantasy or sci-fi, which equates to something like 20% of the whole. Of those 87, only 6 will receive nominations. So, if we were to pretend that all things were equal in terms of each show’s quality and popularity (they’re not at all, but stay with me), at least 1 of those 6 nominations should be allotted to a genre show.

Would that it were that simple. That list of 87 eligible dramas will be narrowed down to 6 by a group of TV-industry workers, peers of the shows’ creators, cast and crew, and countless factors will go into their selection, personal taste, critical responses, campaigns and viewer numbers amongst them. An accusation levelled at the demographic making up electoral members is that it's unfairly skewed against genre TV, that the older voters who make up the majority are thought to be less likely to champion a sci-fi, horror, or fantasy show than they are a glossy real-world drama. If that’s the case, then the answer to Hurd’s “Is that fair?” is clearly a no.

What about here in the UK? Our equivalent to the Emmys, the BAFTA TV Awards, seem much less shy of handing out gongs to sci-fi and fantasy shows. The “Zombies, vampires, werewolves and superheroes” Hurd mentions being neglected by US awards academies pretty much sum up the casts of Being Human, Misfits, The Fades, and to some extent, Doctor Who, all of which have been well-rewarded by the TV BAFTAs in both Best Drama and Acting categories in recent years. The UK TV academies, which admittedly deal with a much smaller volume of shows than their US equivalents, for whatever reason, seem more inclusive of sci-fi and fantasy.

Seeing as Comedy and Reality shows have their own category at the Primetime Emmys, that honour could always be petitioned for being extended to sci-fi, fantasy and horror programming, though Lord knows the division lines are blurry enough as to what constitutes genre TV. The debate of what merits inclusion on a website with the word Geek in its title pops up regularly in our comments section, and unsurprisingly, there’s yet to be a consensus. Ghosts made regular appearances in HBO’s Six Feet Under, but would anybody have called that a supernatural drama? The BBC’s Sherlock’s The Hounds of Baskerville was sci-fi tinged, but would anyone put the series in that awards category were one to be invented?

There’s also an argument that a separate category would marginalise these shows further, admitting that in some way they’re not worthy of consideration against 'proper' drama. To use a callous example that’s in no way meant to equate the plight of sci-fi telly with that of actual people who’ve suffered society-wide set-backs thanks to bigotry and oppression, it’s a similar argument to the one against affirmative action. Do genre TV fans want it ghettoised, tucked away in an ‘also ran’ category? Or just for it to be accorded the same chances at awards as everything else?

There’s a final point to make, which is simply: who cares? Does it matter to you if your favourite TV show wins a mainstream award? Would Firefly have escaped cancellation if it had won a bunch of Emmys? It’s a different context, but The Fades’ recent BAFTA win hasn’t (yet) helped it win a second season, though we're still hopeful.

It’s also worth considering that some viewers are pleased, rather than frustrated by the fact that their preferred programmes are ignored by the mainstream, enjoying the cachet it gives them as fans. Crowing about loving a show before everybody else is as commonly found an attitude in online forums as calling each other Nazis and criticising each other’s spelling. Maybe if the Emmys et al gave genre telly more recognition the fun of being a fan would lose some of its shine.

Networks though, and the individuals involved in making the shows, definitely do care about awards. Viewing figures for the latest season of AMC’s Mad Men, for instance, may not have grown enormously since season one, but the fact it’s won an Outstanding Drama Emmy for each of its seasons thus far makes it a very unlikely candidate for cancellation. Call it a loss leader if you like,  the lower-than-cost loaf of bread sold by a supermarket to build a brand, establish a reputation, and get people through the door.

The season 2 finale of the show Hurd produces, The Walking Dead, also on AMC, attracted almost 9 million US viewers, over three times as many as Mad Men’s recent season 5 finale (even though that episode represented an all-time finale high for the advertising drama). It doesn’t need to be said that popularity though, is rarely a mark of quality. Even fans of The Walking Dead had problems with its recent season, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Hurd and co. complaining if it doesn’t end up in the final 6 come the Emmy nomination announcement.

The mild solution Hurd suggests to the problem is to expand the number of nominees per Emmy category, something the Oscars recently did for its Best Picture category, which went from 5 to 10 nominations in 2010. It’s a reasonable enough idea that if implemented, might just level the playing field?

*American horse-racing thing apparently. No, me neither.

The Hollywood Reporter

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