Skip to main content

Emmy Explained: A Guide to Understanding Television's Top Awards

By Andrea Van Hook

From 'Baghdad ER,' which earned 2006 Primetime Emmy nominations for Exceptional Merit in Nonfiction Programming, Nonfiction Programming, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing, Courtesy of HBO.

Next to the Oscars, the Emmys are the most prestigious awards in Hollywood. Everyone has seen the Emmys on television, but the Emmy broadcast shows only a small number of the actual awards.

In fact, there are three separate Emmy organizations, and each one gives out numerous awards for documentary films and series every year. Among the three organizations, documentaries can enter at least 15 categories and possibly more, depending on the category definition that can change from year to year.

So now that you've raised the financing, made your film, shepherded it through the festival circuit, had a feature release and successfully inked a television distribution deal, it's time to think Emmy.

Step One:  Know Your Emmy Organizations

The first Emmy Awards were held on January 25, 1949 at the Hollywood Athletic Club, and honored local Los Angeles-based television. A few years later, a New York-based group started as well, centered around the news industry. By 1957, the two had merged into the National Television Academy.

Tensions between the Los Angeles and New York groups were constant, due to differences in culture and attitude. The fact that national news remained headquartered in New York, while entertainment programming gradually dominated in Los Angeles only heightened the differences. Eventually, things got so bad that by the late 1970s, the two factions split and sued each other.

Out of the settlement came two separate organizations, each sharing in the Emmy brand--the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS), based in New York, and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS), headquartered in Los Angeles. The

International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (IATAS) started off as the International Council within NATAS, and then split to become its own organization in 1969.

Each organization has carefully carved out its own territory. NATAS gives out annual awards in news and documentaries, sports, daytime, public service and technology. ATAS' domain is excellence in primetime programming, while the International Emmys honor programs that have had their initial broadcast outside of the United States.


The Daytime Emmys, with all of the soap opera stars, are perhaps the best known of the NATAS awards shows. But the News and Documentary Emmy Awards is actually the largest awards program for NATAS, with over 1,600 entries received every year. Out of 31 categories, 17 are devoted to hard news, leaving 14 categories for which documentaries could qualify.

In 2005, NATAS recognized Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary and HBO Family, with a Lifetime Achievement Award, the first time the organization has honored a documentarian. Winning the Emmy for Best Documentary in 2005 was My Flesh and Blood (Jonathan Karsh, dir.; Jennifer Chaiken, prod.) about Susan Tom of Fairfield, California and her 11 adopted special needs children, which was televised under HBO's American Undercover banner. My Flesh and Blood also took home an Emmy Award for Outstanding Editing (Eli Olson), sharing the award with the Oscar-nominated Capturing the Friedmans (Richard Hankin). In Rwanda We Say...The Family that Does Not Speak Dies (Anne Aghron, dir./prod.; Laurent Bocahut, prod.), televised by the Sundance Channel as part of its DOCday strand, received an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Programming, Long Form. The Brazilian documentary Bus 174 (Jose Padilha, dir./prod.; Marcos Prado, prod.), shown on Cinemax, won an Emmy for Outstanding Cultural & Artistic Programming.


The Los-Angeles based Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is responsible for the Primetime Emmys that are televised every year. In addition to awards for best comedy series and best actor, there are several categories for nonfiction programming, which includes documentaries, reality television, game shows and other types of programming. Categories also exist for individual achievement in nonfiction directing, writing, cinematography, editing, sound editing and sound mixing. As a bonus, there's a juried award for "Exceptional Merit in Non-Fiction Programming." Last year, this award was won by Death in Gaza (Saira Shah, prod./wtr.), a documentary that started off being about Palestinian youth, but then became about the death of the director/cinematographer James Miller, by Israeli soldiers. Death in Gaza also ended up winning in the nonfiction cinematography and directing categories last year, and was nominated for the nonfiction writing category. All told, there are eight categories in which documentary films can be nominated.


Finally, the International Academy recognizes programs that are first broadcast outside of the United States. There is one category for best documentary, and it's the most popular (and therefore most competitive) category. Last year's winner was The Drama of Dresden (Sebatsian Dehnhardt, dir./wtr.), originally broadcast on ZDF in Germany. From a US perspective, IATAS is not as well known as the other Emmy organizations, but internationally, it is very prestigious. "The International Emmy is an international icon," says Sandy Clark, director of Emmy judging for the International Emmys. "It's a really big achievement because you are competing against the best in the world."

Step Two: Decide on ATAS or NATAS

So what's the difference between ATAS and NATAS, in terms of nonfiction programming? Since ATAS defines primetime programming as occurring between 6:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m., which is also when most news shows are televised, it can be difficult to figure out.

NATAS News and Documentary Emmys lean more towards hard news, and have award categories for programs like 60 Minutes and World News Tonight, in addition to more documentary-oriented categories. Documentaries that are more "newsy" would fare better with NATAS. 

Documentary entries for ATAS are generally more informational or entertainment-based. For example, Ken Burns' documentary series have been big Primetime Emmy winners and nominees. "Nonfiction programming must be entertainment programming to qualify for ATAS," says John Leverence, senior vice president of awards for ATAS. "A good example is the Cousteau documentary, Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures."

Technically, a documentary could qualify for both Emmy organizations, depending on the category. "It is up to the producer to decide which organization would give them the best chance for recognition," says Peter Price, CEO of NATAS. "But we do have standard conference calls with ATAS, so if we think a producer has entered the wrong category between us, we'll refer them to each other."  

Step Three:  Research the Categories

Emmy categories are notoriously specific. Each organization publishes a rulebook with guidelines and criteria. It is to the filmmaker's or producer's advantage to do the research and know these rulebooks inside and out. Each Emmy organization has extensive online information, so it is very easy to research past awards and see what kinds of programming are nominated for each category.

Even if you think you know, check the rules every year, because categories and criteria change frequently. For example, for 2006 NATAS has added a category called Achievement in Content for Non-Traditional Delivery Platforms, nicknamed "The iPod Emmy." ATAS has become much more documentary-friendly this year by adding subcategories in certain nonfiction programming categories. Now, individual achievement in editing and cinematography is divided up between small teams (no more than three Emmys awarded) and large teams. This was a deliberate attempt to separate more traditional documentary programming from reality programming. "It was absurd asking people to judge the editing of a documentary film versus something like Survivor " says Leverence. "They are simply two completely different types of programming."

Researching the categories and past winners will also help you develop a strategy.  "If it's something that's been on the news quite a bit, the producer might want to enter it in a documentary category instead of a news category to help it stand out," says Price at NATAS. "For example, take a piece on Iraq--it could be news, or it could be a documentary on war."

Step Four: Help the Judges Help You

For all three organizations, judging is a very complicated process. Entries go through multiple viewing and scoring rounds. Because so many people are involved, every part of the entry is important, especially the synopsis. 

 "The synopsis needs to make clear what the piece is about," says Clark of the International Emmys. "The more clearly it's set up, the better it helps the judges." Since typically judges are allowed to fast-forward during the first round, the better and more memorable the synopsis, the higher the chances of progressing through the judging.

Judges are volunteers, and must meet certain criteria in order to participate. NATAS holds screenings for judging panels in New York, Washington, DC and Los Angeles every year. ATAS and the International Emmys allow judges to screen entries at home. For all the Emmy organizations, judges score each entry individually.  

Only ATAS has a category that is a juried award--Exceptional Merit in Non-Fiction Programming--which means a panel of judges view entries and decide together if there is one that deserves the award. The judges can decide not give an award at all, if they feel that none of the entries are outstanding.

For the International Emmys, judging is particularly complex, as it takes place around the world. Entries are divided into four zones--English-language, Europe, Latin America, and Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The "zone" of an entry is where the producing organization is based. "The different zones developed out of a need to balance the English-language programming," explains Clark. By the third round, each zone has nominated the top two programs from its region. Once the final eight in each category are chosen, final judging panels are pulled together, with each judge representing a different country. "It's truly international," Clark notes. 

Whether your documentary is internationally co-produced and shown on television outside of the United States initially, features a hard-hitting news subject, boasts outstanding cinematography or another example of fine craftsmanship, or is downloadable onto an iPod, chances are there's an Emmy category that's a perfect fit.  And all you've got to do is produce an outstanding documentary film. How hard can that be?


Andrea Van Hook is a freelance writer who has worked in the film and television industry for over 15 years, at independent production companies and cable networks.