By Daniel D'Addario
September 15, 2016

Last year’s Emmy Awards were a satisfyingly well-made TV spectacle. Fans of Game of Thrones, TV’s signature hit, got to see their favorite stars celebrating the show’s first Best Drama win. Acting winners Viola Davis, who gave a moving speech about the dearth of opportunities for black actresses, and Frances McDormand, who praised the power of literature, created striking TV moments by speaking from the heart.

None of it registered. The Emmys scored their lowest ever recorded rating, with just 11.9 million viewers. (Last season’s Big Bang Theory episodes, by comparison, averaged 15 million; the 2016 Oscars, seen as low-rated by Oscars standards, got 34.4 million.) ABC, broadcasting this year’s ceremony Sept. 18, is surely hoping for a different result, but it’s hard to imagine how different a show they could possibly make.

At a time when there’s more, and better, TV than ever, why is the awards ceremony that serves as the ultimate recommendation engine–distilling what’s actually worth watching amid all of the clutter–so tangential to the viewing experience? The Emmys should be front and center. Instead, they’re on the sidelines. Last year may have been an aberration; off years do happen for all kinds of telecasts. But it’s hard to shake the sense that this isn’t a show that matters.

The Emmys are up against a number of challenges–and airing opposite the NFL broadcast on a Sunday night is just about the only wound that isn’t self-inflicted. Rule changes meant to make the results more populist have diluted their power. The expansion of categories, for instance, has blunted the impact of a nomination. Last year there were eight Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy nominees, a number that makes the honor of being nominated seem more like a rubber stamp than a citation of talent. The impulse to broaden out the set of nominees is understandable, but the outcome makes the Emmys feel pointless. Faced with a viewership that wants to know which of the vaster-than-ever volume of well-made TV series they should watch, the Emmys reply, “Almost all of them.”

Another recent rule change makes it far easier to vote in Best Drama and Best Comedy–previously determined by small blue-ribbon committee–without voters proving they’d watched every submission. This makes it easy to reward the most popular shows, which could account for Game of Thrones’ particular dominance last time around, and provides a rationale as to why the show will likely sweep again.

But this also saps the Emmys’ greatest power–to introduce viewers to that on TV that is unusual and new to them. Sure, a hyperpopular show could also be TV’s best or, at least, could be whatever we mean by “Emmy-worthy.” But in the years before streaming services brought on an almost unmanageable amount of content, the Emmys had a robust history of honoring shows with which casual TV viewers likely weren’t familiar. On the comedy side, Arrested Development and 30 Rock only crossed many fans’ transoms after winning Best Comedy prizes for their first seasons; in the drama categories, Breaking Bad (whose star Bryan Cranston won Best Actor long before his show was a hit) and Mad Men saw their fortunes lifted on Emmy night. The Emmys don’t need to become the Golden Globes, whose TV winners sometimes skew new for new’s sake. But even if the most popular winners in Drama or Comedy are deserving each year, something is lost when an awards ceremony isn’t willing to get weird.

Granted, the Emmys have a track record of missing out on shows that went on to be seen as hugely influential–from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Wire, every TV fan has their pet snub. They can’t nominate everything great. But lately, the sense that they’re even trying has faded. The sheer volume of nominations has encouraged a sort of mindless repetition–as though overwhelmed by choice, the Academy defaults to what they know. Yes, Maggie Smith is great, but her Downton Abbey nomination should’ve gone to one of the women of Mr. Robot; Kevin Spacey’s fourth acting nod for House of Cards could have singled out Justin Theroux in The Leftovers. Modern Family, on its seventh consecutive Best Comedy nomination, blocked the underwatched Amazon gem Catastrophe–or half a dozen other shows that Emmy could wake potential viewers up to.

There’s still room for an old-school surprise this time around–say, if the superlative and undersung FX drama The Americans claims the top prize–though I wouldn’t bet on it. The Emmys’ recent rule changes suggest a muddled vision for a ceremony that, when done right, serves TV obsessives looking for their next great fix. Anyone who’s casually interested in the vast number of things available to watch would rather spend three or more hours on Sept. 18 watching something else. Game of Thrones obsessives clearly won’t come together in droves just to catch sight of their favorite actors on the red carpet; they’ve moved on, by now, to streaming Stranger Things or Black Mirror.

That’s the greatest challenge the Emmys face. We’re all recommendation engines now. In the face of so much good TV, viewers can create their own bespoke experience and share the details of it with like-minded friends, family and followers. The conversation about the shows that are interesting and experimental happens all year long, and has wildly outpaced a once-a-year awards show. Most crucially, it elides any sort of community other than the one the viewer chooses for herself. In the era of the stream, a true consensus hit is almost unheard of, and chasing after them is a waste of time. If the Emmys want to get big again–that is, interesting and useful–they’re going to have to be willing to honor the small.

And the winner is …

Incumbent winners Veep and Game of Thrones seem too formidable to be toppled, though the story of the night is likely to be multiple nominee The People v. O.J. Simpson

BEST DRAMA

SHOULD

The Americans

WILL

Game of Thrones

BEST COMEDY

SHOULD

Veep

WILL

Veep

BEST TV MOVIE

SHOULD

Confirmation

WILL

All the Way

BEST LIMITED SERIES

SHOULD

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

WILL

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

BEST ACTOR, DRAMA

SHOULD

Rami Malek, Mr. Robot

WILL

Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan

BEST ACTRESS, COMEDY

SHOULD

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep

WILL

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep

BEST ACTOR, COMEDY

SHOULD

Will Forte, The Last Man on Earth

WILL

Jeffrey Tambor, Transparent

BEST ACTRESS, DRAMA

SHOULD

Keri Russell, The Americans

WILL

Viola Davis, How to Get Away With Murder

BEST ACTOR, MINISERIES/MOVIE

SHOULD

Courtney B. Vance, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

WILL

Bryan Cranston, All the Way

BEST ACTRESS, MINISERIES/MOVIE

SHOULD

Sarah Paulson, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

WILL

Sarah Paulson, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the September 26, 2016 issue of TIME.

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