For fans of the small screen, the Emmy Awards are it: the highest honor for work in television. The Television Academy’s various award ceremonies cover shows and programs on all the major networks, plus cable channels (since 1988) and streaming services (since 2013). The accolades, particularly the Primetime Emmys, are highly sought after, often considered the small screen’s corollary to the Oscars and the Tonys. They cover the entire industry, from make-up artists and technicians to executive producers and leading actors.
Producer Lorne Michaels holds a record 91 nominations, more than any individual. It’s easy to see why; he’s the man behind NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which as of summer 2021 has been nominated (275 times) and won (73 statues) more often than any other show. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” shot up quickly to grab a record 59 wins for a scripted series in only a handful of seasons, including a record-busting 12 wins in a single year and, in 2019, most nominations for a drama in a single year. Perhaps the most impressive acting record was set by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 2018: six consecutive wins for one character, her leading role as Selina Meyer on HBO’s “Veep” (out of eight acting Emmys, also a record tied with Cloris Leachman).
The Emmy statue has become as iconic as the Oscar. The winged woman upholding an atom captures the awards’ dedication to both the arts and sciences. The process to find the right statue was long; its current form was the 48th design submitted, after the 47 preceding it were rejected. The name Emmy is a feminized version (to match the statue) of “Immy,” a nickname for a tube used in early TV cameras. Dorothy McManus was the model for the statue, which was designed by her spouse, TV engineer Louis McManus.
Want to know more? The guide below covers many of the ins and outs of the Emmys, including who votes, who is eligible, and best of all, how to win one yourself.
The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) held their first awards ceremony on January 25, 1949 at the Hollywood Athletic Club. Tickets were $5. Only six awards were given out, all for local Los Angeles television programming. The first winner? Ventriloquist Shirley Dinsdale for Outstanding Personality for the children’s show “Judy Splinters.”
There are actually several Emmy ceremonies recognizing different segments of the TV industry. These events are staggered throughout the year and awarded by different organizations that share the Emmy name and statue. Each organization maintains its own membership of television professionals who vote.
ATAS was started first, and votes on the Primetime Emmys and their corresponding Creative Arts and Engineering categories. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) began in 1955 and votes on Daytime (including daytime TV’s Creative Arts and Engineering), Sports, and News and Documentary awards. The International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (IATAS) votes on the International awards.
Members can vote online to both elect nominees and select winners. For the ATAS and the Primetime Emmys, different peer groups decide different awards. When a potential member applies to the ATAS, they qualify for a peer group based on their role in the industry. For the Primetime Emmys, all members can vote for awards for the main program categories. Non-program entries are decided by their respective peer group (for example, performing categories such as actor or actress in a drama series).
The Emmys website has also provided this visual guide on the process.
To apply for membership in one of the academies, you have to be active or have been active in the world of TV and meet the minimum requirement of your peer group (listed here). Once approved (generally in four to six weeks), you can vote online. Just remember to pay your membership dues!
The Primetime Emmy categories have undergone plenty of changes over the Academy’s seven-plus decades; the list below reflects the awards list as of 2019.
The main program categories are:
- Outstanding Comedy Series
- Outstanding Drama Series
- Outstanding Limited Series
- Outstanding Reality-Competition Program
- Outstanding Television Movie
- Outstanding Variety Sketch Series
- Outstanding Variety Talk Series
Other awards by peer group are:
- Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
- Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
- Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
- Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
- Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
- Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie
- Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
- Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie
- Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series
- Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special
- Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series
- Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series
- Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special
- Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series
Additional awards for the other peer groups are announced at the Creative Arts Emmys, which hold a separate ceremony prior to the Primetime Emmys.
New rule changes were introduced in 2020 allowing for Emmy categories to include up to eight nominees, depending on the number of submissions.
The 73rd annual Primetime Emmys will take place Sept. 19, 2021, broadcast live on CBS. Details are forthcoming on the Creative Arts ceremonies, typically held not long before the Primetime event.
Last year, widespread cancelations of awards ceremonies due to the global COVID-19 pandemic caused nominating and voting windows to shift. The 2021 Daytime Emmys take place June 25, signaling a return to a more typical Emmy season schedule.
Winning an Emmy is totally possible, although not easy. Angela Lansbury has been nominated 17 times, including 12 for her starring role on “Murder She Wrote,” and never won a competitive honor. Barring the cruelties of fate—or, alternatively, accounting for good luck—here are some suggestions.
- Get expert advice
- Sharpen your skills by studying the ins and outs of acting
- Or start by learning the basics online
- And read up about TV acting
- Get an agent
- And sign a contract
- TV actors have types, so make sure you know yours
- Get cast (by mastering the audition process), and keep applying to every role that fits your type!
This article was originally published on Aug. 7, 2018. It has since been updated.
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