Prestige and Purpose: The “Rise” and Fall of the Critics’ Choice Television Awards
Myles McNutt / Old Dominion University
Last November, it was announced that Entertainment Weekly would be the exclusive promotional partner of the Critics’ Choice Awards, which aired on A&E on December 11. For Joey Berlin, the president of the two organizations—the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA) and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA) — that together administer the Critics’ Choice Awards, this partnership was part of “the breakout year for the [awards],” going on to suggest “adding Entertainment Weekly and the other powerhouse Time Inc. brands to our terrific partnership with A&E will blast our show into the top tier of must-watch awards shows.”
Ultimately, this partnership did nothing to change the place of the Critic’s Choice Awards, which remain marginalized from the “Oscar Season” narrative compared to the Golden Globes or the various Guild awards. However, the partnership proved newsworthy for another reason, as it came at the expense of nearly 15% of the BTJA’s membership, who resigned in protest of the awards promoting a single media brand. TV Line’s Michael Ausiello, who was one of the charter members of the BTJA when it was formed in 2011, said in a statement that “What I loved about the organization is that it was never about one outlet but about the entire industry coming together to recognize the best that television had to offer.” [ (( Notably, this came under a year after the BFCA faced a similar exodus from several members in protest of the decision to add Star Wars: The Force Awakens to the Critics’ Choice Awards Best Picture category after voting had already concluded, seen as a bald attempt to increase ratings in light of its huge box office success. ))]
This mass exodus represents a key moment of transition for the BTJA, an organization whose existence gives insight into the perceived role of journalists within economies of prestige as well as the function of media industry awards in our contemporary moment. Although ostensibly presenting itself as a professional organization that represents the interests of journalists that cover television, the BTJA can better be described as a loose collection of individuals who exist in symbiosis with the industry and the prestige economy it perpetuates. Whereas the more established Television Critics Association organizes the twice-a-year TCA Press Tour for its members, the BTJA has failed to generate any meaningful role in its six-year existence outside of giving out television awards to go along with the BFCA’s existing Critics’ Choice Awards honoring the best in film.
As they were originally designed, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards filled a perceived absence in the space of TV prestige. While the Oscars are preceded by a series of “precursors” that allow contenders to practice acceptance speeches or bolster their campaigns through televised appearances, the Emmys have historically lacked such an event, despite the fact that campaigning for the Emmys has grown increasingly robust in recent years. Although the TCA has its own awards, they are not televised, and offer a more intimate celebration of the year’s best in television with only winners in attendance. What Berlin and the BTJA imagined was something different:
“We’d like to think it’s appropriate for the critics and TV journalists to weigh in at the beginning of the TV awards season, performing a similar function as the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards do in the movie awards season, The Academy members are busy making TV shows, so it is nice for the industry if the critics help focus the attention on the best TV programming. We think it is a useful timing.”
This statement is notable for its willingness to frame the Critics’ Choice Television Awards as a useful service not to the viewer, or to the critics themselves, but rather to the television industry: while its audience may be the viewing public at home, its message is perceived as a placeholder for more traditional promotional efforts that the industry is too busy to handle. This is echoed by the fact that the Critics’ Choice Television Awards came with a new category: “Most Exciting New Series” honors between five and eight new series that the BTJA members are anticipating, despite the fact that those members would have likely seen only the series’ pilot at the time of voting. It’s a decision that helped build a positive relationship between the BTJA and the networks and channels whose talent it depended on to fill tables, present awards, and “buy into” the event in its early years, where the BTJA struggled to pull the awards together: they moved from a barely-watched tape-delayed airing on Reelz Channel to two years of online streaming, plagued by production mistakes like envelopes with the winners printed upside down (as evidenced in the video below).
In this way, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards were not designed as an objective measure of the best of television by independent journalists: rather, they represent an opportunity for a group of select journalists — few of whom would self-identify as critics beyond those members who overlap with the TCA — to exact their influence over the prestige economy in the television industry. [ ((This was further reinforced for the Critics’ Choice Awards in general when Berlin moved the Awards to December this past year, which pushed the broadcast to the “start” of Oscar season for greater influence, despite disrupting the procedures of voters actually seeing the films in contention.))] Rather than allowing the entire membership to vote on nominees, the BTJA created panels of its most experienced members, who hand-selected nominees in Drama and Comedy categories. This allowed them to highlight performers that the Emmys — and potentially the rest of the BTJA membership — would likely ignore: Tatiana Maslany was nominated for, and won, a Critics’ Choice award for her acclaimed work on BBC America’s Orphan Black in 2013, and the visibility of her win could well have been influential in her nominations and eventual win at the Primetime Emmy Awards three years later.
In this way, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards could be seen as a vital corrective to the predictability of traditional media industry awards, offering formal recognition to series and actors that may be ignored by the Emmys. Shows nominated in recent years by the Critics’ Choice Television Awards but not the Emmys include FXX’s You’re The Worst, Comedy Central’s Broad City, The CW’s Jane The Virgin, and HBO’s The Leftovers — none of these shows have won when put to the larger membership, but their nominations stand as a testament to their value. Although Maslany stands as the only example of a performer or series whose path to an Emmy explicitly started at the Critics Choice Television Awards, there is an argument to be made for the value of giving performers like her visibility as Emmy voters — including many in the room — cast their ballots.
However, despite this being central to Berlin’s stated purpose for the awards, the BTJA has since abandoned the awards’ place as an Emmys precursor. After persistent ratings struggles across multiple networks and channels, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards were merged with the Critics’ Choice Awards, with the BFCA and BTJA handing out all of their awards on the same night beginning in January 2016. [ ((This created an awkward half-year of TV eligibility, with Best Drama Series winner from the 2015 Critics’ Choice TV Awards The Americans ineligible for the next year’s award, having not aired new episodes in the intervening six months.))] Although this technically serves as a precursor to the television awards handed out by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, it operates on a calendar year model that creates limited overlap with Emmy consideration. [ ((It also resulted in some confusion when Mandy Patinkin was nominated for Homeland this past year, despite Homeland not airing during the stated eligibility period—the nomination was rescinded, but it points to the confusion within the awards themselves.))] The decision has further rendered the Critics’ Choice Television Awards a vanity project: no longer capable of standing on their own, the awards now exist primarily to justify the existence of the BTJA, which with its loss of key members looks increasingly like a group that will never serve a purpose beyond its now diminished role in economies of prestige.
While the failings of the Critics’ Choice Television Awards could point to the lack of “purpose” to media industry award shows more broadly, their existence points to the allure of awards for those adjacent to and within those industries. There was a clear demand for an award show from the networks and channels competing for Emmys and the actors and producers who value recognition, in addition to the journalists who gain their own sense of prestige by participating in this economy. Although they may no longer hold the same purpose or value that was imagined when they began, the Critics’ Choice Television Awards still hold enough value to the industry to continue as a yearly tradition, albeit not one that has entered the “top tier” of award shows as Berlin predicted.
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