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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Stewart

New year, new Emmy rules: Guest actors hit with ambiguous screen time restriction

In keeping with tradition, the rules that applied to the most recent Primetime Emmys have been tweaked ahead of the upcoming nominations. While I’m much more interested in the Oscars and film in general, I simply have to comment here since one of the most significant rule changes has to do with screen time. Given its vagueness, I find myself neither supporting nor opposing the TV Academy’s decision but rather remaining skeptical of their intent.

This “new” rule is in fact an extension of an existing one, as it essentially places continuing series guest stars under the same screen time restriction that has impacted limited series/TV movie supporting performers since 2007. That stipulation, which originally stated that “the minimum on-screen time for [longform supporting] eligibility is 5% of the total running time of a movie or a complete limited series,” was swiftly enacted in response to Ellen Burstyn’s embarrassing 2006 nomination for her 14-second performance in the telefilm Mrs. Harris. In that case, it was crystal clear why action needed to be and was taken, but things are much murkier this time.

Knowing how much of an uproar Burstyn’s nomination (not to mention Margo Martindale’s two 2010s guest wins for very brief turns on The Americans) caused, it’s ridiculous that hardly anyone batted an eye at Jon Bernthal being recognized last year for a 17-second, mostly auditory appearance on The Bear. That’s not to say I don’t comprehend why he got as far as he did, as it’s evident that his submission didn’t make a difference to most voters. While they should ideally have judged the performance at hand, they obviously did not and instead rewarded a long-respected actor for two seasons’ worth of guest work. I mean, anyone who paid attention during the 75th Emmys season knows that his show wouldn’t have been quite as strong of a player – nor would he have been recognized at all – if its entire second season hadn’t dropped during the nominations voting period.

Although one might deduce that the new rule is designed to prevent future nominations like Bernthal’s, there’s no actual proof of that. Unlike in 2007, we can only assume the purpose of this ruling, which may not end up having the presumed desired effect due to its recycling of hazy language that was once much clearer. At least on paper, ATAS used to define screen time as just that: physical time on screen. In 2020, however, they officially expanded the term to include “contiguous” (off-screen but in-scene) time, accounting for the fact that performances typically continue when actors are on set but out of frame. I personally assert that the correct definition of screen time lies between their original and updated ones – physical time on screen + off-screen speaking and direct noise = accurate measurement of performance length. Yes, silent, off-screen acting is usually still acting, but it should not factor into a strictly numerical evaluation. Such lenience only allows for ease in the unwanted discovery of loopholes.

Referring only to their submitted episodes, of course, I know the screen times of all 76 of last year’s comedy and drama Emmy nominees. I’m certain that the only ones who could have triggered this ruling are Bernthal and Sarah Niles, the latter of whom (counting some off-screen voice work) appears in only 54 seconds of her chosen Ted Lasso installment. The problem is, those two performances would arguably still be eligible under the new restriction, which states: “The minimum stand-alone and contiguous-screen time (performer has an ongoing engagement in the scene, on or off camera) for eligibility is 5% of the total running time of the submitted episode.” In truth, the only 2023 nominee who would have been unequivocally disqualified is Harriet Walter, whose sole scene in Ted Lasso’s third season finale takes up 3.5% of the episode (I can also confirm that Martindale wouldn’t have been disqualified in 2015 but would have in 2016). Niles, however, submitted an episode in which she has “ongoing engagement” for two and a half minutes, constituting 5.5% of the running time. Using the given terminology, it’s pretty cut and dry – her Sharon’s phone call with Ted inarguably takes up a qualifying amount of the episode, thus justifying her candidacy.

Bernthal’s situation is more debatable, but there’s plenty of room for argument given the Academy’s wording. During the three-minute opening scene of The Bear’s first season finale, we see and hear sporadic glimpses of his body and voice that amount to a mere 12 seconds, BUT, given that that scene takes up 6.2% of the episode, who’s to say he doesn’t have “ongoing engagement” throughout it? If ATAS really wants to prevent such silly nominations, they must be more specific and not leave their words so open to manipulation.

Honestly, this flawed ruling might still be enough to deter actors from even submitting glaringly miniscule performances (as neither Bernthal or Niles were forced to do, as they had other episodes to choose from). But what I really think is that, if ATAS insists on holding onto their odd definition of screen time, they’re soon going to be forced to lock things down even further, because what they’ve done just isn’t enough.


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