The perennially four-star-rated "Patton" won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1971, and the "dated" "Marcus Welby, M.D." was named TV's best drama series in 1970. Then, the influential "Police Story" claimed the Emmy in 1976, and the oft-emulated "All the President's Men" and "Network" lost out on the top Oscar to "Rocky" in 1977. So, are the Oscars a better judge of the classics than the Emmys? Or are the Emmys better than the Oscars?
"I'm not sure if there is an easy answer for what you are asking," Barry Monush, assistant curator of L.A.'s Paley Center for Media, said via email.
But we gave it a shot anyway.
We reviewed the past 60 years of Best Picture and Outstanding Drama Series winners, from 1952, when the Emmys first presented itself on the national scene, to the 2012 award season. And we attempted to assess how the shows' "best of the best" held up. Which is the ultimate pop-culture kingmaker: the Emmys or the Oscars?
- Emmy winners are somewhat more likely to be revered by present-day Hollywood than Oscar winners. The Writers Guild of America's crack at the 101 best-written TV shows of all time, released in June, features 34 Drama Series honorees, including reigning champ "Homeland." By comparison, the American Film Institute's updated take on the 100 best U.S. films, issued in 2007, includes 22 Best Picture winners of the Emmys era.
These lists are, of course, subjective (not unlike the Emmys and Oscars themselves). Also, they don't match up. There are, in fact, 27 Best Picture winners on the AFI's list, five of which were released prior to 1952. And where the WGA's list is concerned, if you add in all the comedy, variety, miniseries, and animated-division champs, fully 86 of the chosen 101 shows are category-dominating Emmy winners. So, does this mean that the Emmys are more in tune with lasting greatness than the Oscars, or that the Emmys give out a boatload more awards than the Oscars?
- Of the top 10 TV shows ranked by the WGA, only two, "The Twilight Zone" and "The Wire," were not crowned series winners. That's a better success rate than the Oscars' landing five Best Picture winners among the AFI's top 10. But to be fair to the Oscars, five of the eight Emmy winners are Comedy Series winners. If the respective lists go drama to drama, the score is Emmys three, Oscars five.
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- The Emmys would strike out more than the Oscars if they didn't get so many chances. "The Graduate," for instance, was nominated only once for Best Picture. Emmy voters, on the other hand, had four shots at honoring "The Sopranos" before finally connecting with the David Chase show in its fifth season. The end result, however, is what is remembered: The Emmys honored a trendsetter like "The Sopranos"; the Oscars snubbed "Citizen Kane" and went with the perceived safer "In the Heat of the Night" over the newer sensibilities of "The Graduate" and "Bonnie and Clyde," also nominated the same year. (The Emmy Awards, it's worth noting, is also the show that not only never honored "The Wire" as Outstanding Drama Series, but never nominated "The Wire" as Outstanding Drama Series — so, there's that.)
- Monush is right: There is no easy answer to the question "Oscars or Emmys?" In fact, there may not be an answer at all.
Are the Oscar winners of the 1950s, for example, more relevant today because they, to a film, generate hundreds of thousands more search results than their TV counterparts, some of which are nearly impossible for the modern viewer to find? Or are the Emmy winners of the same decade more relevant because, say, "Studio One," the anthology series that produced the first screen version of "12 Angry Men," and 1952's Emmy drama pick, is infinitely more respected (by the people who've seen its kinescopes) than, say, the retroactively panned "Greatest Show on Earth"?
"I think it's important to note that these [movies and TV shows] made their impact at the time they received their awards," Monush said. "Whether they are able to continue to stand the test of time as taste and styles change again and again is an awful burden for them to have to carry."
But it does make for a good debate.