The Emmy Awards are the highest honor for work in television. The Television Academy’s various awards 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 makeup artists and technicians to executive producers and leading actors.
The Emmy statuette 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 its 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 Emmy winner was ventriloquist Shirley Dinsdale for Outstanding Personality in the children’s show “Judy Splinters.”
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 2023.
Main program categories
- Outstanding Comedy Series
- Outstanding Drama Series
- Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series
- Outstanding Scripted Variety Series
- Outstanding Reality Competition Program
- Outstanding Television Movie
- Outstanding Talk Series
- Outstanding Variety Special (Live)
- Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series
- Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie
- Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series
- Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie
- Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
- Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie
- Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
- Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie
- Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series
- Outstanding Directing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie
- Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series
- Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series
- Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series
- Outstanding Writing for a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie
- Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series
Additional awards for the other peer groups are announced at the Creative Arts Emmys, which are held in a separate ceremony prior to the Primetime Emmys.
Several Emmy ceremonies recognize 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.
How are the Emmys voted on?
Members can vote online to both elect nominees and select winners. For the ATAS and the Primetime Emmys, different peer groups decide on 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 groups.
To apply for membership in one of the academies, you have to be active in the world of TV and meet the minimum requirement of your peer group. Once approved (generally in four to six weeks), you can vote for the Emmys online. Just remember to pay your membership dues!
The 75th annual Primetime Emmys were held on January 15, 2024, at the Peacock Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
Producer Lorne Michaels holds a record 94 nominations, more than any individual. It’s easy to see why; he’s the man behind NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which as of 2023 has been nominated 305 times and won 92 Emmys. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” holds the most nominations for a drama series at 161, winning 59 and, in 2019, breaking the record for most wins in a single year at 12. In the comedy category, “Cheers” remains the most nominated series at 117; in 2024, “The Bear” surpassed the record for most Emmys won by a comedy in a single year at 10.
Perhaps the most impressive solo acting record was set by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in 2018, when she registered six consecutive wins for one character (her leading role as Selina Meyer on HBO’s “Veep”). She tied the record for most Emmy acting wins ever set by Cloris Leachman.
Winning an Emmy is possible, although challenging. Over its six-season run, “Better Call Saul” was nominated for 53 Emmy Awards, winning zero. Barring the cruelties of fate—or, alternatively, accounting for good luck—here are some suggestions.
- Browse our listings of TV auditions and casting calls to get your first roles on the small screen
- Learn the ins and outs of becoming a TV actor
- Study the specifics of on-camera acting
- Read and listen to our in-depth interviews with Emmy nominees and winners like Ayo Edebiri, Matthew Macfadyen, Bella Ramsey, and Colman Domingo
- Master the audition process and create a killer TV-focused demo reel
- Sign with the right acting agent
This article was originally published on Aug. 7, 2018. It has since been updated.