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‘The Night Of’ Didn’t Lose to ‘Big Little Lies’ at the Emmys — It Lost to a Broken System

Maybe by the time we see "The Night Of" Season 2, things will be set right.

Riz Ahmed The Night Of HBO

Barry Wetcher/HBO

Last year, one of the biggest Emmys stories had nothing to do with the 2016 ceremony.

People wouldn’t stop talking about “The Night Of,” a summer sensation among viewers and critics that debuted in mid-June on HBO. The limited series aired its first episode before the Emmy nominations were announced and its last episode nearly a month before the ceremony took place.

And yet, “The Night Of” was nowhere to be seen on Emmys night; it wasn’t eligible.

Thankfully, the memories of TV Academy voters were sound enough to nominate Steven Zaillian and Richard Price’s eight-episode drama for 13 Emmys in 2017. More than a year after its premiere, “The Night Of” became an Emmy winner by snagging four wins at the Creative Arts Emmys (for cinematography, sound editing, mixing, and film editing), as well as one more on Sunday night when Riz Ahmed won for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series.

Five Emmys is nothing to sneeze at, but “The Night Of” didn’t win the Best Limited Series category, and one has to assume time played a factor. The most addictive limited series of 2016 had to compete with the most addictive limited series of 2017, and while “Big Little Lies” is certainly a deserving honoree, the showdown should never have happened. Whether you were pulling for Naz and John Stone or the moms of Monterrey, “The Night Of” boys felt out of place, like they showed up to the prom during their freshman year of college.

The problem doesn’t lie with what won and what lost so much as within the system itself. The Emmys need to adapt with the times. For the glut of awards already taking place at the start of every year, the Emmys need to join the pack, or risk a continued tailspin.

“The Night Of” doesn’t represent an isolated incident, either. This year, similar confused discussions were had in living rooms across America when viewers stared at the nominees and wondered, “Hey, where’s ‘Game of Thrones’?” Others likely asked why David Lynch wasn’t up for directing “Twin Peaks” or Jason Bateman didn’t get an acting nod for “Ozark.” The simple answer is they weren’t eligible, but it’s anything but simple to explain why.

The Emmys eligibility timeline still runs from June 1 – May 31. So, for the 2017 ceremony, seasons needed to run at least half of their content before June 1, 2017 to be eligible. Anything after that date has to wait until next year, which pushed “The Night Of” out of eligibility for the year it was released, as well as the latest seasons of “Game of Thrones” and “Twin Peaks.” Based on that schedule, “The Night Of” Season 2 could have run in full and still not been eligible at the 2017 Emmys (had it come out a year after the original, like most follow-up seasons).

So why don’t the Emmys run annually, instead of splitting the years down the middle? It dates back to pre-Golden Age TV schedules, which still exist today but aren’t as obvious because of “too much TV.” Broadcast networks used to be the only ones competing at the Emmys, and their seasons run from September through May, with a winter and summer break built in. Rather than split up the TV seasons by holding an awards show at the start of the year — right in the middle of the broadcast TV calendar — the TV Academy set it up so full seasons could be considered by voters (and so the televised Emmys’ ceremony could promote new shows debuting in the fall).

But that timeline is long antiquated, even by broadcast standards. Many broadcast series are shorter now, and though plenty air across the traditional schedule, others wrap up by Christmas or begin around Valentine’s Day (which would fit a calendar similar to the Oscars). Moreover, broadcast has been so viciously boxed out of Emmy competitions that “This Is Us” snagging 11 nominations — behind nine streaming/cable shows with more nods — was treated like a governor calling with a last-minute reprieve for network TV’s death sentence.

To be fair, a shift from mid-year would be difficult. For one, it would likely mean pushing one ceremony back from September to January and extending eligibility six months to accommodate. But one Emmy season covering a year-and-a-half of content would be better than permanently sticking with the current system. The shift would also mean a dramatic change in campaign scheduling, creating more overlap between film awards season and TV awards season. But there’s already overlap thanks to the Golden Globes, and anyone afraid of competing with the Globes is missing the point.

The Emmys are widely regarded within the industry as a higher honor than the Globes because of who’s voting. More than 20,000 television professionals vote on the Emmys, as opposed to 80-odd members of the Hollywood Foreign Press. The Emmys don’t need to make room for another award show. It needs to protect itself. That means ditching confusing, outdated schedules and allowing shows to compete when they should. It makes sense to TV consumers that “The Night Of” would compete in the same calendar year it was released, and that would help viewers avoid confusion and keep them excited to watch the ceremony itself.

This change will likely never happen. From a business perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense considering how much money is spent on March – August campaigning, which avoids the September – February film campaigns that use the same billboards, event locations, and ad space in general. But a shift could help reverse the ratings slide the Emmys telecast has seen over the past three years. It could even generate more buzz for the awards in general. But it would definitely help keep people talking about the right Emmys stories: the best TV shows of the year.

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