Hey, Emmys! Bring Back The 'Best New Program' Category
Why resuscitating the retired category is good for TV.
On and off from 1954 to 1973, when the category was discontinued, the Emmys' "Best New Program" honored shows of all stripes in their first year of broadcast. That first year, for instance, saw honors for sitcom Make Room For Daddy and the drama anthology series The United States Steel Hour. Aside from the fact that those are PERFECT titles both, it's fascinating to consider an awards landscape in which shows that weren't I Love Lucy or Dragnet (both won in their respective categories that year) managed to get some recognition, and broaden the list of winners. I certainly hadn't heard of either until just five minutes ago, when I learned about them on Wikipedia, but fifty years ago audiences knew exactly what they were all about. Both ran for ten years! That's practically a century by today's standards.
In the last decade, disappointing predictability has blanketed the big awards. Comedies like 30 Rock and Modern Family have absolutely dominated their category, each winning half of the last six awards. Across the aisle in Drama rests about the same diversity, Mad Men having won from 2008 to 2011 and Homeland sneaking in last year. In all likelihood, one of those shows will win again this fall.
Quality is quality, and no one's saying a rude word toward any of those recent Emmy winners (God forbid). But there's a clear pattern here, a sort of accolade entrenchment that whether warranted or not keeps other shows -- new shows -- from getting the sort of spotlight that they, too, might deserve. Modern Family last year bested two rookies in the "Most Outstanding Comedy" category. One of them, Veep, gave us razor-sharp political satire fronted by Julia Louis-Dreyfus's best performance since Seinfeld. Girls, love it or loathe it, became a cultural flashpoint even for people who never saw an episode. Your grandmother has a lot of opinions on Girls. [I have asked you not to call me that. - Ed.] Both of these programs delivered thoughtful, unique television; both of them deserve the kind of boost that could come from a major Emmy award.
Now the Grammys have their equivalent in "Best New Artist," governed by a ridiculous set of rules that somehow prohibited Lady Gaga's nomination in 2010 (Because "Just Dance" had been nominated the year before) and told us Bon Iver was "new" four-plus years after the release of their debut album. Vampire Weekend will probably win in 2014. It's stupid! But the impulse -- honoring an artist or group who might not otherwise break through in their genre category -- is right on, and something the Emmys would be wise to (re)emulate. At the end of the day, all of these silly awards shows are just about exposure. We're trying to draw attention to work that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. Did Arrested Development take on millions of new viewers after its Best Comedy win in 2004? …I mean, no, but at the same time I have to believe that the honor only added to its cultural cachet. Which, in today's era of Netflix resurrections and network jumping (see: Cougar Town) matters almost as much as sheer viewership.
Surviving on television is a tough business. Of the almost hundred new shows launched every fall (and now year-round), not many will see it through to the end of their freshman season. Some of these casualties were terrible, sure, but just as many couldn't find the right audience. Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, RIP, deserves a "Best New Program" Emmy nomination. Likewise Ben & Kate, consistently warmer and funnier than many of its surviving counterparts. Nashville is actually still ON TV, and yet no one expected it to earn a nomination against the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones. Throw it a bone!
The unspoken foundation of this whole idea might come as a shock to you, but: the Emmys don't matter. Homeland wasn't BETTER than Mad Men last year, just buzzier. And in any case, who cares? As viewers, we're only benefiting from this abundance of fantastic programming available to us whenever we want, however we want to watch. What the revival of "Best New Program" would contribute to the landscape is more diversified chatter, a stronger platform for those shows still struggling to capture audiences and attention. More eyeballs can only encourage TV creators to make the final product better. Which would increase their odds of taking home one of the BIG STATUES.
So in the end, we all win.