Al Pacino has done it. Sarah Jessica Parker has, too. As has James Gandolfini, three times. Accepting a Primetime Emmy Award is fairly easy: stride to stage, grasp 18-karat-gold-covered statue—weighing in at a little under 5 pounds—sniffle, smile, wave, stammer, glance upward, laugh, or any combination of the above. And it's all over in a few minutes. It's fairly popular to thank the Academy—but who, exactly, is that?
Welcome to the world of Emmy voting: intense, intricate, and orchestrated down to a science. A months-long, hyper-organized affair, the voting process is a whirlwind for those who take part in it: the coordinators, promoters, counters—and of course the voters.
At last count, taken in April, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which is based in Los Angeles and handles the awards for prime-time programming, had 12,429 active members nationwide. There are several requirements for membership, including current or recent involvement in the industry and payment of annual dues. Every active member is eligible to vote for the best of the Primetime Emmys and in certain categories. (The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, based in New York City, handles the Daytime Emmys, as well as awards for news, documentaries, and sports.)
Program voting, for the biggest and most well-known prizes such as outstanding drama series or lead actor and actress, is open to all members, explains John Leverence, senior vice president of awards for the Academy. But a television executive, for example, would be allowed to vote for program awards only and not for craft-oriented honors such as cinematography or hair and makeup. Only cinematographers may vote for cinematography; this is what winners mean when they thank their peers. "We send out introductory ballots in the first stage [of voting], and we also send out peer-group ballots to sound mixers, writers, directors, those types of categories," Leverence says. "There are approximately 4,500 listings over all the various [nomination] ballots," which come out in early June.
Voters have about three weeks to sift through the ballot listings and decide which five, or sometimes fewer, should be nominated for award consideration in each category. Members record their votes both on paper and online, using an electronic Scantron sheet—for younger voters, perhaps reminiscent of the SAT and possibly just as dizzying. "It's really complex," says Peggy Chane, founder and executive producer of CPC Entertainment and an Emmy voter since the late 1970s. "There are so many different Emmy Awards, all split up. It's not like one Oscar."
The second round of voting, in which voters choose one winner from each category's shortlist, is supposedly heralded by the arrival of DVDs, although these often arrive even before the first-round nomination ballots do; in 2000 the Academy decided to relax the rules to allow at-home screenings rather than herd voters into marathon, two-day screening sessions in a controlled environment. Viewers are on the honor system to watch the entries in another three-week period, which means the marketing floodgates have opened. Chane recently received five DVD packages in one day—among them an orange, lizard-print box topped with a silver plaque from Showtime; a 96-page full-color reproduction book promoting executive producer Steven Spielberg's miniseries Into the West; and a "cute little pop-up" from BBC America. "They used to send them with popcorn and boxes of candy and all this," Chane remarks wryly. "You can only send what would be 'appropriate DVD packaging' now."
Leverence estimates the Academy sends out about 25,000 DVDs for the prime-time awards, but it isn't the only one sending materials. David Craig, director of drama programming at A&E, helps promote his network for various Emmy awards with a spirited campaign of targeted mailings. "At the end of the day, you'd like to believe all awards are a meritocracy, but if you don't give somebody a reason to watch..." Craig says, trailing off. "First and foremost [are] the mailings, which are uniquely conceived to really stand out from the rest and get people excited." Craig, an Academy member who has been nominated for two Emmy awards, is also responsible for filling out the applications for inclusion on the nominations ballots, and he tries to spread out the prospects in as many various, even obscure, categories as possible. "We go all the way down to the best title design," he says. "Not as many people are filling out applications in those categories, so you've got better odds. At the end of the day, when they list the number of nominations a network got, they don't differentiate." All an individual, production company, network, or agent has to do to be considered on the first ballot is submit an application, along with certain supplementary materials such as video clips, and pay a fee.
Still, some entries on the nominations ballot are never seen by voters, mainly because the productions don't have a mailing—or any other—budget. "You always feel for the little gems that were just terrific," Chane says. "The small independent productions that don't have the money to send out the DVDs—I fear they're lost in the shuffle." But, she adds, "It is fun [to vote] because you're picking from amongst the best and honoring them."
To pick a winner, voters rank the nominees from 1 to 5. "It's like a golf score," Leverence says. "The winner would always be the one with the lowest score." The accounting firm Ernst & Young is responsible for calculating the official tallies in the first and final rounds, the process carefully—and understandably—shrouded in secrecy. "There are only a few people who know who the winners are—no more than three," says Andy Sale, a partner at the firm in his sixth year of overseeing the count. "And I would say no more than five people [are involved in the entire tallying process from beginning to end]. It's very labor-intensive." Computer technology is used in the process, Sale explains, but the results are mainly calculated by many rounds of manual counting. "We do a lot of double- and triple-checking," Sale says. "We triple-check the results over a period of a few days. We also handle all the printing, the assembly, of all the envelopes. We do it in a locked room on our premises."
Sale can't say how the envelopes stamped with the winning names make it to L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium, where the awards are held, but he can say that there is heavy security, strict surveillance, and extensive contingency plans: "In case one of us is...detained, the envelopes can go without us."
Of course the results are kept confidential until the moment the envelope is opened onstage. (Ernst & Young also monitors the broadcast closely to make sure the right winner is named; it has never gone back to check a count, because a result has never been challenged or compromised.) The winner's moment has arrived—but, for the voters, the important moment has long since passed.
"It's the process that's important," Chane says. "I truly do believe to be nominated is an honor, and often maybe that's enough. But society the way it is always wants a winner." Choosing, to Chane, is the worst part of voting—but not often the hardest. "Often there's just a standout, and often what I think is a standout and is a clear winner is not the one that wins, but you can understand why it won. It's just like democracy: It doesn't work perfectly, but what's the alternative?"