Are the ‘Primetime’ and ‘Daytime’ Distinctions on the Way Out for the Emmys? (Column)

One of the more confusing aspects of the Emmy Awards is that there are two different TV academies. I won’t bore you with the history behind this — I’ve written way too much about the infighting between the two orgs these many years — but a divorce in the 1970s left the New York-based National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences with the Daytime Emmys (and others, like sports; tech; and news and documentary), while the L.A.-based Television Academy got the Primetime Emmys.

For decades, the relationship between the coasts was brutal, featuring lawsuits and countersuits over jurisdiction. In the mid-2000s, the battle concerned who would get to honor the then-nascent world of digital programming, given the lack of any clear daypart in the digital world. NATAS struck a deal with MySpace (hey, seemed like a good idea at the time) to launch its own Broadband Emmys, but the Academy in Los Angeles quickly balked. 

After a lawsuit and arbitration, both sides agreed that they would stick to categories within and relevant to preexisting ceremonies. And so, as the streaming revolution took hold, it became a bit of a smell test: The shows that felt like they were “primetime” went to that Emmy competition, while most kids shows and digital soap operas went to the Daytime race.

But now that we’re nearly a decade into the streaming revolution, it’s clear that dayparts are becoming less and less defined. Even linear broadcast and cable networks are moving to an on-demand world, when people watch what they want to watch, when they want to watch it. 

“It’s absolutely an ongoing conversation,” NATAS president and CEO Adam Sharp tells me. “I don’t think that the current alignment as it is, is perfect.” Sharp notes that when the two TV academies last split oversight of digital fare, it was 2008 — and streaming was still in its infancy. “That line has continued to blur considerably,” he says. 

In one small change this year, the orgs agreed to clarify that any extension of, or a special produced from, a daytime series — even if it was first broadcast during primetime hours — is now eligible only in the Daytime Emmy competition. That means HBO’s “Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Special,” which in previous years would have competed in the primetime competition, instead was entered in the Daytime Emmys (where it won the award for special class program).

Yet HBO Max has submitted “The Not-Too-Late-Show With Elmo” in the primetime competition, via the short form variety series category. “Not-Too-Late-Show” would seem to be an extension of “Sesame Street”; it also features Cookie Monster and other pals from the show. But it’s patterned after a traditional late-night talk show, so that leaves things a little murky. And when there’s a question of eligibility, the academies usually let the shows decide where to compete — as long as they don’t attempt to enter both.

Sharp says that the world of children’s animation is also a murky space for deciding what’s primetime and what’s not: “If a children’s-targeted animation happens to premiere at 8 o’clock at night, but it is kids-oriented, does that belong side by side with ‘The Simpsons,’ or does it belong side by side with other children’s programming?”

Even the digital drama space is a bit unclear: In a broadcast-only world, daytime soap operas had specific time slots, and were limited both by FCC guidelines and by the fact that advertisers weren’t keen on things getting too edgy in the middle of the day. But when it comes to the Daytime Emmys, Sharp notes that some digital dramas that are submitted tackle more mature topics and feature “steamier scenes.”

“If you have a digital soap opera, you have a lot more latitude than the broadcast soaps have in terms of content,” he says. “And so you can do scenes or language or topics that would feel right at home at 9 o’clock on HBO. So is the fact that they are a very serialized sort of soapy format enough to call them daytime?”

The reckoning that eradicates daypart distinctions may be coming, and it could be the networks — as they play with first windows while launching their own streaming platforms — that force the change. 

“You look at some of these shows and you say, ‘You know what, I couldn’t make a good argument either way that it belongs in daytime or primetime,’” Sharp says. “And frankly, it often just comes down to venue shopping, where the show producers are saying, ‘OK, where am I more likely to win?’ I don’t think it’s in either Academy’s interests to have that being the differentiator.” 

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