The lack of various reigning winners suggests structural coordination problems

The Emmy Award statue on the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences campus in Los Angeles during a backstage sneak peek at the Television Academy’s biggest television night in Los Angeles.

Al Seib | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Sunday’s Primetime Emmy Awards may have had a record high number of diverse nominations, but the lack of diversity among the winners of the actors has led many to say #EmmysSoWhite.

Although colored actors make up nearly half of all acting nominations, white actors swept all 12 main and side races in the comedy, drama, and limited series categories.

“It was disappointing,” said Darnell Hunt, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and African American studies at UCLA. “After a while it becomes a numbers game. If 44% of the nominees are People of Color and 0% win, then something structural happens. “

Few would say icons like Kate Winslet, Olivia Coleman and Gillian Anderson or breakout performers like Brett Goldstein and Hannah Waddingham didn’t deserve their Emmy wins. Sunday’s snub of non-white performers isn’t new, however, and has challenged Hollywood’s ability to fairly celebrate excellence.

This is especially important when ceremonies like the Emmy Awards offer winners more than just a gold trophy. An Emmy win adds prestige to both the winner and the studio they work for, which can translate into higher paychecks and better funding for future productions, Hunt said.

Over the past decade, streaming service Netflix has gained invaluable prestige through Emmy awards for shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “The Crown”, attracting top talent like Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes and Guillermo del Toro could.


Part of the theme of this year’s Emmys is optics. While the primetime ceremony, which aired on CBS on Sunday, didn’t go to People of Color acting awards, it did go to the Creative Arts Emmys, which took place the week before.

Courtney B. Vance was honored for his guest role on HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” Dave Chappelle and Maya Rudolph each won an award for hosting “Saturday Night Live,” Sterling K. Brown received an Outstanding Narrator win, and Keke Palmer and JB Smoove won the Awards for Outstanding Actress and Actor in a Short Form Comedy and Drama.

The problem is that these awards were given at a separate, lesser-known event.

“There were many wins for People of Color in the technical categories at Creative Arts Emmys,” said Nate Thomas, professor of cinema and television arts and director of film production programs at California State University. “So, I think my point is that just because it wasn’t at the TV or Primetime Awards … it’s still worth something.”

Thomas, who won a 2014 regional Emmy Award for producing and directing a public television commercial for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, said the television academy had “come a long way” in recent years, “compared to eight or nine ago Years when colored people won nothing. “

Still, these Creative Arts Awards don’t have quite the same pull in the industry as those given at prime time.

Wrestling for gold

While studios can win in the Creative Arts, a large part of the focus is on the “big awards” such as leading actor or leading actress or outstanding comedy or drama. These are the awards that most viewers look for and give prestige to companies.

Because of this, traditional cable networks and streaming platforms spend tens of millions on marketing campaigns just to get nominations and even more once they get them. This marketing, as well as word of mouth from the audience, can help influence voting members.

However, not all shows receive the same marketing budget.

“Has HBO done enough to bring a hugely popular and creative show like ‘Lovecraft Country’ to Emmy voters?” Brandy Monk-Payton, a professor at Fordham University who specializes in African American media representation, asked in an email to CNBC. “Well, they had already canceled the show, so the likelihood that their energy would be directed towards such a program to actively promote its actors and the show itself was probably slim.”

Vance, who won for his role as George Freeman on Lovecraft Country, also asked the same question during a post-Emmys chat with reporters on Monday.

“Sometimes it amazes the mind that a show as popular and transformative as ‘Lovecraft Country’ was nothing,” he said.

“Lovecraft Country,” which was mostly black, was nominated for 18 Emmy Awards in the Primetime and Creative Arts categories. For comparison: “Mare of Easttown”, which was also distributed by HBO and was mostly cast in white, was nominated for 16.

Warner Bros. representatives were not immediately available for comment.

There are many reasons HBO has given a show like “Mare of Easttown” more funding than “Lovecraft Country”. As Monk-Payton noted, Lovecraft Country has been canceled. And a star like Winslet, who dubbed “Mare of Easttown” is a household name in Hollywood, which means that Emmy voters may be more inclined to vote for her because of her proven track record as a performer.

“There are so many products on TV now that I don’t know any academician who has seen all of these shows,” said Thomas. “So part of it becomes a marketing and popularity contest.”

After all, there were 133 dramas, 68 comedies, 41 limited series and 41 television films on the ballot to determine the nomination. And that’s significantly less than last year because the pandemic stopped productions and streamlined the pool of votes.

One way forward

“I don’t think there’s too much content on the subject, as much as it is a ruinous inability for Emmy voters to think imaginatively and outside the box,” said Monk-Payton.

“This year has shown the ease with which these organizational bodies can return to the status quo after upheavals,” she added. “They ‘reckon’ with structural racism for short by offering superficial solutions to deep-seated problems of exclusion and inequality. However, they do not ensure that systemic changes take place and become permanent.”

Critics of Sunday’s results suggest that the television academy should expand its membership to include more people of color in its ranks.

Before the pandemic, the academy had around 25,000 members, but that number has fallen by 5,000, according to a report from Variety. Unlike the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there is no clear breakdown of membership.

The television academy seems to be trying hard. Sunday’s television show was filled with various hosts, including the cast and creator of Hulu’s “Reservation Dogs,” a film starring indigenous actors and crew.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has revamped its membership by adding more people of color and more women to its community over the past five years. This strategy seems to be paying off as the 2021 nominees and winners list included some notable premieres.

The 93rd Oscars marked the first time an all-black production team was nominated for Best Picture, the first time two actors of Asian descent received an award for Best Actor, and the first year two women were nominated for Best Director became. When the winners were announced, it reflected that spirit of inclusion.

Chloe Zhao took home the trophy for best director, becoming the second woman to win the title. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, two-thirds of the hairstyling and makeup team behind Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, were the first black women to receive and win a nomination for best makeup and hairstyling.

“Soul”, which won the award for best animated film, is also Pixar’s first film with a black character in the lead role. And Yuh-Jung Youn was the first Korean actor to win one of the four acting categories.

Still, there is no “silver bullet” that will immediately solve a long-standing inclusivity problem, Hunt said.

“You really have to fight it from all sides,” he said, noting that more colored people need to be involved in every part of the industry.

About Gloria Skelton

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