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What’s The Most Iconic TV Show In Emmys History?

Television is a rapidly evolving medium, so Emmy categories come and go with its trends. In this year’s Emmys, which air on Sunday, we have “Outstanding Structured Reality Program”; in the ’50s we had “Best Continuing Performance (Female) in a Series by a Comedienne, Singer, Hostess, Dancer, M.C., Announcer, Narrator, Panelist or Any Person Who Essentially Plays Herself.”1 And while we’ve now hit the point where the difference between a “comedy” and a “drama” is how long you’re expected to sit down and watch an episode of television, it’s still possible to find where different shows had their strengths historically.

To get ready for this year’s show I decided to take a trip through Emmy history. I pulled every Emmy nomination listed by IMDb, and broke them into one of four categories: Emmys for a performance, for writing or direction, for tech (anything from hair and costumes to visual special effects) and for overall show. Since all the nominees are nominated by their peers in each category, this can give us a broad look at which shows moved the bar forward in their time.

I looked at the percentage of a program’s Emmy nominations that fell into each category. This allowed me to find, for instance, which shows won their acclaim from the work behind the scenes: the music, the makeup, the production design and the editing.2

Tech advances are where “Star Trek” really sings. “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager” and “Enterprise” racked up a combined 141 nominations in their time, all but one of which was in the tech category. If you want a makeup and costume nomination, casting a Klingon tends to make your point pretty quickly. Other programs that pulled massive hauls from the tech set include period pieces such as “Rome,” “The Tudors,” “Band of Brothers” and “The Borgias,” and science fiction material like “Battlestar Galactica” and “The Walking Dead.”

MADtv 43 100%
Star Trek: Voyager 34 100
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine 32 100
Star Trek: Enterprise 17 100
That ’70s Show 16 100
Carnivàle 15 100
Rome 15 100
The Tudors 15 100
Christmas in Washington 14 100
Solid Gold 14 100
The Walking Dead 14 100
Alice in Wonderland 12 100
JAG 11 100
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea 11 100
Star Trek: The Next Generation 58 98
Shows whose Emmy nominations are mostly for technical work

Source: IMDb

When it comes to writing and directing, it’s late night and comedy that really come out ahead. The late shows of David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert all pulled sizable chunks of their nominations in these categories. So too did sketch shows like “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Portlandia” and “SCTV Network.”

SCTV Network 15 67%
Late Night with David Letterman 36 58
Buffalo Bill 11 55
Episodes 10 50
The Jack Benny Program 20 50
The Colbert Report 41 49
Late Night with Conan O’Brien 29 48
The Bold Ones: The Senator 11 45
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart 60 45
Portlandia 16 44
CBS Playhouse 28 43
Silicon Valley 19 42
This American Life 12 42
Inside Amy Schumer 12 42
The Defenders 22 41
Shows whose Emmy nominations are largely for writing and directing

Source: IMDb

Programs that pulled most or all of their nominations from the overall show award categories are some combination of two kinds of television not really recognized elsewhere in the Emmys. Some have stripped down production, a lack of acting and minimal writing. “Nick News with Linda Ellerbee,” “Inside the Actors Studio” and “Antiques Roadshow” are stellar examples. Others are animated shows: “South Park,” “Adventure Time,” “Futurama” and “Robot Chicken” don’t easily get recognized in other categories that skew towards live action, but they get recognized here. Somewhere in the middle of the two lies “Sesame Street.”

Nick News with Linda Ellerbee 22 100%
Inside the Actors Studio 19 100
Antiques Roadshow 14 100
Sesame Street 11 100
Adventure Time 10 100
The Dick Cavett Show 10 100
Biography 20 90
South Park 17 88
The Barbara Walters Summer Special 16 88
ABC’s Wide World of Sports 15 80
Entertainment Tonight 18 78
Robot Chicken 14 71
Futurama 14 71
Live From Lincoln Center 69 71
Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color 24 71
Shows whose Emmy nominations are mostly for the show overall

Source: IMDB

The shows that Emmy recognizes almost entirely for their performances are an interesting bunch. They’re character-driven shows — often police procedurals or sitcoms — that have a versatile cast and can often pull on lots of easy one-shot guest actor nominations. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” is the ur-example here.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit 23 96%
The Jeffersons 14 93
Touched by an Angel 13 85
Rhoda 17 82
Judging Amy 11 82
Monk 18 72
The Rockford Files 18 72
The Good Wife 42 71
The Odd Couple 14 71
Mad About You 34 71
Family 17 71
I Love Lucy 20 70
Coach 16 69
Bewitched 22 68
Newhart 25 68
Shows whose Emmy nominations are mostly for performances

Source: IMDb

So these are all shows that skew in one direction or another. What does a perfectly balanced Emmy nominated show look like? Across the whole set of nominated programs, on average 25 percent of the nominations were for performances, 14 percent for writing and directing, 43 percent for one of the tech categories and 18 percent for the show overall. I tried to find the show that looked closest to that.3

Data set average 25 14% 43% 18% 0.00
Designing Women 18 22 17 44 17 0.04
Northern Exposure 39 28 18 38 15 0.07
Mad Men 116 25 16 47 11 0.08
Lincoln 13 31 15 38 15 0.08
Six Feet Under 53 30 9 47 13 0.10
Anne Frank: The Whole Story 11 27 18 45 9 0.10
Brian’s Song 11 27 18 45 9 0.10
Queen of the Stardust Ballroom 11 27 18 45 9 0.10
Too Big to Fail 11 27 18 45 9 0.10
Saturday Night Live 203 30 19 41 10 0.10
The shows whose Emmy nominations have been most in balance

Source: IMDb

The closest shows are “Designing Women” and “Northern Exposure” — two CBS shows of the early ’90s — and right smack after those two comes one of the most recognizable programs of the past decade: “Mad Men.” This makes a lot of sense; the show was well made, with many episodes highlighted for writing and direction, some beloved performances and — set in the ’60s — a meticulously crafted production design. It’s one of the best shows ever and one of the most evenly acclaimed.

And when you combine all that well-rounded balance with its 116 Emmy nominations, the fourth-most ever and far more than “Designing Women and “Northern Exposure,” “Mad Men” seems to be the most iconic show in Emmys history.


  1. Really.

  2. I only looked at programs with 10 or more Emmy nominations here, otherwise I’d be singing the praises of a show with a trivial number of nominations.

  3. Or, which vectors of values had the shortest euclidean distance.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.