There will probably be a lot of surprise winners and losers at Sunday's Emmy Awards, but nothing that happens will catch Andy Sale off guard.
That's because in his role as partner at the accounting firm Ernst & Young, his clients include the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Sale oversees the counting of votes for the prime-time Emmy Awards. In other words, he knows who will win before anyone else.
It is a grueling process that wouldn't exactly make for spellbinding TV. Sale estimates that there are more than 20,000 ballots in both the nomination and Emmy rounds.
"We treat every one of them as if they are the one ballot that can make a difference in an Emmy nomination or win," Sale said.
To ensure that no one counting the votes gets any ideas about throwing a race to their favorite shows, the ballots are coded and only a few Ernst & Young executives know the code. "We have effectively three sets of eyes looking at the results," Sale said. Votes are first scanned and then counted by hand.
Ballots for most categories are preferential, meaning that voters don't just vote for a winner, they also rank the remaining nominees in order of preference.
"It allows you to distinguish between a second-place nominee and a fifth-place nominee.... If you just had a strict one candidate, one vote, you'd never be able to break a tie," Sale explained.
Sale gets his 15 minutes of fame out of counting all those votes. Although Joan and Melissa Rivers don't care about what he is wearing, last year he and his team were incorporated into a comedy bit during the show.
Don't bother trying to get anything out of Sale about who will be taking a statue home on Sunday night. He has overseen the firm's tabulation of Emmy votes for 10 years without any mishaps or leaks, and he isn't about to start spilling the beans now.
But Sale will talk about security, how to avoid goofs and the perks that go with the gig. An edited transcript of our chat with Sale follows.
How cool is it to walk on the red carpet?
It's one of those things where for at least one day a year, being an accountant is something the press wants to shine a light on.
Is it the one day of the year it's fun to be an accountant?
I think it's fun to be an accountant every day.
When the awards start Sunday night and host Jimmy Fallon walks out there and does his opening bit, how many people know who the winners are?
The representatives from Ernst & Young know, and only the representatives from Ernst & Young know. The academy does not know.
What's the closest finish you can recall? Any hanging chads?
There's been several major categories over the course of my 10 years where it's been one ballot.
Has anyone ever screwed up reading a winner?
Part of our role is to ensure the appropriate name is read onstage. If a name was omitted or read inappropriately, we would be duty-bound to go onstage and correct it. It's never happened. We hope to continue that streak.
Let's talk security. After you've finished counting the votes, where do they go?
Where they are secured and how they are secured changes every year. It can be in a vault. It can be under a pillow. We have multiple sets of envelopes and those multiple sets of envelopes arrive at the Nokia Theatre by different means. For security reasons, I can't divulge those specific means. They're delivered by a means both conventional and unconventional, and that's all I'll say on that.
Can't the voting be set up on the Internet with a secure password? Why is it so important to maintain the handwritten ballot?
I am personally in favor of anything that allows the full complement of the voting academy to participate. Right now the television academy believes that is through a paper balloting mechanism.
What raises your eyebrows when counting votes?
There are circumstances where members might misplace a ballot and they inform the television academy of a misplaced ballot. What we would do is make sure we didn't receive two ballots back from a voter. We do from time to time see that.
What ultimately disqualifies a ballot?
In some cases ballots are prepared in a manner where you can't discern a voter's intent. In those particular cases we would not count the ballot.
Do you get groupies out of this?
I can't say I've seen a lot in the way of groupies.