The former senior vice president of awards at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences looks back at nearly 40 years of rules, the 1980 SAG strike, and the time a Mad Men star crawled on stage.

June 07, 2021 at 03:02 PM EDT
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No one knows the rules of the Primetime Emmys more than Dr. John Leverence — mostly because he wrote (almost all of) them. For nearly 40 years, Leverence was the go-to guy for anything having to do with winning a 6 lb, 12-ounce statuette. If you had a question about which category to compete in, he was your man. And if you had a beef about who won and who didn't, well... he took those hits, too. Leverence, who earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Center for the Study of Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University, even authored the book And the Winner Is, which the late TV writer and producer Steven Bochco described as a "users manual" for awards competitions.

In 2019, Leverence stepped down from his role as the senior vice president of awards for the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, but you don't let a guy like him completely disappear. He's now consulting for the TV Academy and chairing its engineering committee, along with answering a few questions from EW about his long and very important tenure.

Emmy Awards, John Leverence
Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images; Inset: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first job with the TV Academy?

DR. JOHN LEVERENCE: A friend of mine from grad school knew Richard Krafsur, the ATAS awards administrator in 1979, who was leaving that position in 1980. Richard had me in for an interview in late 1979 with Hank Rieger (then ATAS president), and Tricia Robin (then ATAS executive director). I was hired and began work in January 1980.  

How did you become the man who seemed to know everything about rules and procedures?

When I started at the Academy in 1980, the rules and procedures of the competition were a half dozen typed pages. In 2021, the rules book runs to 162 pages. I didn't write all of it, but I wrote a lot of it.     

You've seen a lot of change during your tenure. What were some of those positive changes that you remember the most?

A million little things, but the armature on which the awards process is built is evolving informational technology. Two homely but telling examples: Emmy judging began with small panels sitting in hotel suites watching the nominees play on ¾-inch Sony U-Matic tape machines. With the advent of VHS tape and then CD-ROMs, we were able to greatly expand the involvement of the membership with at-home judging panels. With streaming, the entire membership is engaged in both the nominating and final judging phases of the competition. The IBM Selectric II typewriter was a marvel of engineering, but it had no memory and couldn't fix information to a data sticking post. A name spelled correctly in the list of entries could be typed incorrectly in the roster of nominees and then take another typo turn in the final press release of winners, because every time we advanced a piece of information through the stages of the competition, our handling of it jeopardized its accuracy. It was only when the Academy acquired a Wang mainframe computer in the early 1980s that we could rely on correct information going forward through all phases of the competition. That dear little Wang mainframe, no bigger than a motel refrigerator, was a gamechanger.

Every year, we in the press like to write about snubs — people who were not nominated. Did you ever take those stories personally?

No, because it is a long-held and universal opinion that there are always more Emmy-worthy achievements than there are Emmy-nomination slots. My response to snub criticism was, "Okay, which nomination should sink so another entry could swim?" Zero-sum games of relative worth are right up there with proving a negative. 

Can you recall when Emmy campaigning started to become a phenomenon?

Murray Weissman and Tony Angelotti pioneered Emmy campaigning in the late 1980s, but the phenomenon took off when VHS tape allowed networks, studios, and production companies to bring the whys and wherefores of direct marketing the membership. 

Do you have a favorite Emmy telecast of all time?

My first, the 1980 telecast, was crippled by the SAG strike. Dick Clark and Steve Allen were AFTRA members, so they could comfortably cross the picket line and cohost the show, but they were the only stars out that night… until almost at the end when Powers Boothe was announced as the Lead Actor winner for Guyana Tragedy. All of a sudden, there he was at the podium accepting the Emmy. It was a glorious Hollywood finish!   

What was the worst Emmy year of all time?

From the house audience's perspective, it was Sept. 17, 1978, when the show was interrupted by the breaking news of the Camp David Accords. The break occurred at a point in the show when the glaring house lights happened to be on, and they stayed on for about an hour, nearly blinding the 2,500 attendees in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. People were screaming to turn down the lights, but Truck Krone, the lighting director, kept them burning. As someone later noted, nobody tells Truck Krone to dim his lights. 

Can you wow us with some of your Emmy knowledge? What's a piece of Emmy trivia that has always been fascinating to you?

When perennial Mad Men nominee Jon Hamm won his Emmy in 2015, he unsteadily rose from his front-row center seat and, ignoring the steps up to the stage, crawled up and over the stage lip, shakily took to his feet to take the statuette from Tina Fey and, when he made it to the mic, repeatedly muttered in what seemed a cold-cocked daze that this was impossible... impossible… impossible. I have seen that look and heard such words rising and converging a thousand times in the silent heart of light that is the Emmy's numinous embrace. 

What do you see happening with the Emmys going forward? Can you see more categories, like Best Streaming show, to accommodate all that content out there?

When Emperor Joseph II told Mozart he thought his opera had too many notes, Mozart replied that it has not too many and not too few… just the right number. I trust that as the medium's content evolves, the Emmys will continue to appropriately and accordingly compose its paeans.

Check out more from EW's The Awardist, featuring Emmys analysis, exclusive interviews, and our podcast diving into all the highlights from the year's TV shows and performances.

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