Emmys 2016 Honored a Wide Range of Voices; Next Year’s Show Promises Even More Inclusion

When all was said and done and accepted, the 68th annual Primetime Emmy Awards went down easy, with voters serving up a mix of shoo-ins and surprises among the winners.

But the TV business is strapping in for a much wilder ride next year, when the playing field will be wide open, probably even more crowded, extremely diverse, and perhaps most significantly, free of dragons.

The potential for newbies to break through with nominations or wins next year is strong now that HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is sitting out the 2017 race. HBO has opted, at the behest of the show’s producers, to push the drama’s seventh season premiere to next summer, just outside of the 2016-17 eligibility window. The sidelining of the show that has dominated Emmy nominations and wins for the past two years will open up a vacuum that plenty of worthy contenders will fight to fill.

Beyond “Thrones,” the other heat seeker of the 2016 race, FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” won’t be a factor next year. The anthological “American Crime Story” will be back with a new installment, focusing on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But the bar is high for the show to capture the same kind of attention it did with the exquisitely cast, perfectly timed study of the Simpson murder saga, which grabbed nine awards and 22 nominations.

Meanwhile, changes in the Television Academy’s voting procedures during the past two years have increased overall turnout and clearly had an impact on the final Emmy product. This year, for the first time, voters during the final judging stage were able to pick one show to vote for, rather than ranking the nominees in order of preference. Two years ago, the TV Academy embraced online voting in order to make it more convenient for its nearly 20,800 voting members.

The number of members who took part in final Emmy voting this year spiked 40% from 2015. Surveys found that some members felt overwhelmed by the need to rank each nominee rather than voting for their top pick, according to TV Academy president Maury McIntyre.

Some voiced concerns that the Emmy voting changes would lead to fewer people actually taking the time to screen the nominated material, making the race more of a “popularity contest.” But McIntyre emphasized that online voting allows the Academy to track whether members are screening the relevant content.

“It’s still very much an award voted on by your peers,” McIntyre told Variety. “A large portion of those who voted did so in the last two weeks, which means they took the time to watch the content. That’s been fantastic for getting more people involved in the [selection] process.”

The broader voting pool could also heat up the industry debate over the classification of comedy series. This fall, cable and streaming outlets are fielding a slew of new half-hour programs in the vein of “Louie” and “Girls” that are rooted in highly personal and emotional storytelling, making them a far cry from traditional TV sitcoms. FX’s “Atlanta,” from Donald Glover, and Amazon’s “One Mississippi,” from Tig Notaro, are already generating awards buzz.

“In an atmosphere of great change for the business, repeat wins for ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Veep’ were the kudocast equivalent of comfort food.”

The Academy last year tightened its rules for the submission of series in comedy and drama categories, delineating them largely along half-hour and hour-long lines. An appeals process was established for shows that don’t fit the format. But the wave of new dramatic half hours that also includes HBO’s “Divorce” and “Insecure” could force the Academy to revisit that definition.

“We’re clearly going to continue to have those conversations,” McIntyre said, noting that it’s hard for the Academy’s governance to keep up with “the explosion of content.”

The question of whether new categories are needed to address the wide variety of comedy and drama programs may be taken up by the new regime installed after the academy holds its election for officers in November. Chairman Bruce Rosenblum is stepping down after serving two consecutive two-year terms.

In an atmosphere of great change for the business, repeat wins for “Thrones” and HBO’s political satire “Veep” and its star Julia Louis-Dreyfus were the kudocast equivalent of comfort food. Everybody expected them to prevail, and no one (other than perhaps rival nominees) had much of a beef with the decisions. As one wag noted, “Thrones” in its sixth season delivered an episode, “Battle of the Bastards,” that had more impressive epic-scale action sequences than “Braveheart.” (That same episode collected the drama writing and directing awards.)

But awards shows are a snore without a few underdogs taking the stage. After all, surprise winners tend to give the better acceptance speeches. “Mr. Robot” star Rami Malek and “Orphan Black” star Tatiana Maslany did not disappoint as they claimed their drama acting trophies.

“Please tell me you’re seeing this too,” Malek said, channeling his “Mr. Robot” character, who regularly has visions of his dead father.

Louie Anderson was another surprise winner, for supporting comedy actor for “Baskets,” which is an out-there half-hour series even by FX standards. To McIntyre, the 2016 upset wins are a good sign that voting changes are paying off.

“It’s an indication that opening up the Emmys to a broader membership vote does generate differences in whose getting these awards,” McIntyre said.

As host Jimmy Kimmel joked in his opening monologue, “The Emmys are so diverse this year, the Oscars are now telling people we’re one of their closest friends.”

The line turned out to be prescient. In contrast to this year’s Academy Awards, which were defined by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Emmys doled out honors across a broad spectrum of winners.

Much of that diversity could be seen in the limited-series categories, where three of four acting winners — Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and Regina King of “American Crime Story” — were black. King, who last year became the first African-American woman to win for best supporting actress in a limited series or movie since Cicely Tyson in 1994, this year became the first person to win back-to-back awards in any limited series or movie acting category.

Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, creators of Netflix’s “Master of None,” won for comedy-series writing for an episode that focused on the cultural disconnect between two first-generation Asian-American men and their immigrant fathers.

Ever the comedy writer, Yang noted that there are now roughly the same number of Asian-Americans in the U.S. as Italian-Americans. “They have ‘The Godfather,’ ‘Goodfellas,’ ‘Rocky,’ ‘Sopranos,’” he said. “We got Long Duk Dong. So we’ve got a long way to go. But I know we can get there.”

Related stories

Sarah Paulson on Why Her Emmy Win Is Also Justice for Marcia Clark

Five Key Lessons Learned From the 2016 Emmys

After Emmys, Jimmy Kimmel Is the Obvious Choice for Oscar Host (Opinion)

Get more from Variety and Variety411: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter