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Emmy Embraces Online Docs

By Valentina Valentini

From Seamus Murphy's A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan, which received an Emmy Award nomination in the New Approaches to News and Documentary Programming: Documentaries category. Courtesy of Media Storm

Over the last seven years, we have witnessed a cavalcade of revolutionary developments in content creation and delivery: Facebook opened its membership to the world beyond colleges in September 2006; Netflix introduced VOD in February 2007; Twitter debuted at South by Southwest Film Festival a month later and, one year after, the very first Tweet was transmitted; and Apple released its first iPhone in June 2007 and its first iPad in 2010. Middle-school students 60 years from now will read their history books (or, more likely, tablets) and conclude that this decade was one of the most important in terms of social and technological developments in the entertainment and communications industries (and beyond).

With these changes, it becomes important for all the different awards Hollywood has to offer to mold and meld with the times as well. With terms like "second screen" and "cord-cutting" as part of the daily industry lexicon, organizations like the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) have had to incorporate changes that reflect the transformations of the digital environment of entertainment consumerism.

But first, let's clarify: NATAS, based in New York City, administers and oversees the News & Documentary, Sports and Technology, and Engineering awards categories, as well as the Daytime Emmy Awards, while ATAS, based in Burbank, California, administers the Primetime Emmy Awards, and co-administers the Daytime awards with NATAS. So although the two academies are responsible for different Emmy competitions and are two separate but affiliated entities with their own executives, staffs, boards of governors, etc., they both present those coveted gold Emmy statues.

Another significant difference is that NATAS has 19 regional chapters, all of which manage Emmy competitions for regional programming, including Regional News & Documentary programming, whereas ATAS manages one chapter: Los Angeles.

 "Our most significant change has been the integration of online programming into the News & Documentary Emmy competition," explains David Winn, the director of the News & Documentary Emmy Awards. "We began accepting online programming in 2006. In that year, there was only a single category in News & Doc that was open to online programming. Now, all News & Doc categories are open to both online programming and programming broadcast by more traditional means: over-the-air, cable, satellite."

Just as Netflix's House of Cards will be eligible for the Primetime Emmy Awards, online documentary series distributed in a similar way will be eligible for the News & Documentary Emmy Awards. Examples include Morgan Spurlock's A Day in the Life on Hulu, The New York Times' Op-Doc series, or Ondi Timoner's A Total Disruption.

"While all of our categories are open to online programming, the overall category structure, at least in News & Doc, is still relatively TV-centric," says Winn. "For example, we have categories for newscasts and newsmagazines, as well as long-form programming. We do, however, have three "New Approaches" categories, which are for programming that's innovative in some way and which do attract a lot of online-only submissions—although these categories are also open to over-the-air broadcasts. But occasionally, we'll take an online piece and gerrymander it into one of the more traditional categories where it seems to be the best fit."

As content providers have expanded and Internet programming has become ever-present, with higher quality each passing season, John Leverance, senior vice president of awards at ATAS, asserts that the board of governors has always taken the pulse of the industry and adjusted accordingly. "We don't make any categorization or even any distinction with what platform a program has screened on," Leverance says. "When the academy began back in the 1970s, we had ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and syndicated shows. Along the way, we picked up cable, satellite and then in 2008, we expanded eligible platforms to the Internet."

Just as ATAS (and NATAS) haven't split up drama series awards based on platforms (drama awards for cable, drama awards for network, etc.), they don't plan on splitting up nonfiction awards based on platform either, no matter what the future may hold. "I don't think it'll change," Leverance maintains. "A reason for this may harken back to the now-extinct CableAce Awards—a competition exclusively for cable content. That created something of a ghettoization, if you will; HBO became so dominant in those awards that they decided it didn't really mean a lot to them anymore."

Even though HBO knew it would face tougher competition at the Emmys, the cabler preferred to step over, giving it a wider berth and more distinction. "The academy learned that if you're going to give an Emmy for outstanding drama series, it has to be the best drama series no matter what platform it has come from," adds Leverance. "There used to be gripes about how on cable there was more [flexibility with sex, drugs, etc.] than on the networks, and that cable didn't have the FCC breathing down its neck. But the board of governors said that the essential components of a drama series are going to be there regardless of the FCC rules, and those fundamental aspects wouldn't be judged outside of that.

"Based on that and the recent changes with programming on the Internet, I don't think it'll change," Leverance continues. "And you can see that the academy has embraced all different categories There has even been a 20 percent increase in categories over the last 12 years and all different platforms."


Valentina I. Valentini is a freelance journalist and producer based in Los Angeles. She contributes to Variety, IndieWire.comICG MagazineBritish Cinematographer, HDVideoPro and more.