Let's Abolish the Emmy Awards: A Brave Idea From 1956

Telecommunications scholar Stuart W. Hyde advocated replacing the Emmys with a National TV Festival. After last night’s ceremony, his ideas may be worth revisiting.
Neil Patrick Harris performs onstage at the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards at Nokia Theatre on Sunday Sept. 22, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Invision for Academy of Television Arts & Sciences / AP / Phil McCarten)

Last night’s presentation of the 65th annual Emmy Awards was, according to the Internet at large, a bust.

The ceremony was boring; the jokes weren’t funny; the wrong people won the awards. “Nobody ever gets one of these three-hour statuette dispensaries completely right,” wrote The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever, but this year’s Emmys “poked along as flatly as possible. The banter had no flair for comedy.” Host Neil Patrick Harris's opening monologue was “the peak embodiment of ‘giving people exactly what they do not want,’” wrote The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon, and after Jeff Daniels shocked TV audiences by beating the likes of Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Bryan Cranston in the Best Actor in a Drama Series race for his role in The Newsroom, one deadpan headline on The Atlantic Wire read, “The Internet Is Mad Jeff Daniels Won Best Actor.”

“An awards show filled with skits about how bad awards shows are gave awards to people who talked about how bad the show turned out, while everyone on Twitter had decided that hours earlier,” Stuever concluded. “These days, that’s entertainment.” To recap: The Emmys this year were a surprising low in bad awards shows, even for an awards show that understands how bad awards shows are.

So here’s a brave, radical solution that’s all of 57 years old: Let’s just give up on the Emmys entirely.

In 1956, Stuart W. Hyde strongly believed that the Emmys were inherently terrible and wrote an article about it for The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television titled “Another Look at the Emmy Awards.” Hyde (then an assistant professor of telecommunications at the University of Southern California, who would later go on to write the popular textbook Television and Radio Announcing) argued that the Emmys, just seven years old at the time, were failing to live up to their own lofty goals and were instead destroying the ambitions of the creators who would drive television forward by arbitrarily anointing one TV program the “best.” In place of the Emmys, Hyde suggested, America needed a weeklong festival of TV watching.

One of the chief evils of the Emmy Awards, Hyde proclaimed, was its use of categories, which was “totally inappropriate to television.”  

“Television is virtually everything there is—politics, athletics, music, drama, comedy, interviews, documentary, and special events. It is, in short, everything and anything that one chooses to place before a camera,” he wrote. “Through the use of the category, the entire television industry has been misrepresented to the nation; and the real achievements of the pioneers in the field have been neglected. Shows that have, in actuality, virtually nothing in common have been lumped together.”

Today, some might say Hyde’s last point still stands. Is it fair, for example, to pit the sometimes gritty, often discomforting Girls, which has become something of a comedy in name only, against laugh-out-loud fare like Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory?

The Emmys’ own charter, Hyde noted, laid out some seriously lofty ideals for the prize. Directly from the text, he quoted its mission statement:

To hold forums for exchange of ideas on matters concerning the advancement of television. To provide a meeting place where educators and leaders in public life can discuss the types of information the public should get; art forms which will come into existence through television, and other matters.... To encourage research and accomplishment by presentation of awards. To cooperate with organizations having similar aims.

“Notice here,” he wrote, “the emphasis on ideas, on advancement of the medium, on information, on art forms, and on research and accomplishment. Can any objective reader fail to be impressed by the clear statement, contained in the next-to-last line, that the yearly Emmy awards are designed to ‘encourage research and accomplishment’?”

And yet the show was destined to undermine those goals, according to Hyde, by insisting that each category had to have a “best.”

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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