(guardian) – Emmy awards face the future as television becomes more diverse

Nominated shows like Empire, Transparent and How to Get Away With Murder reflect increased appetite for television that reflects racial and gender diversity

The Emmys are notorious for awarding the same shows with trophies year after year. For instance, only two shows, Modern Family and 30 Rock, have won outstanding comedy in the last eight years.

However, there are signs that the Emmys are finally catching up with TV’s new world. Due to a number of rule changes, and viewers’ increasing appetites for shows that reflect the racial and cultural diversity of America, this year’s ceremony, which takes place in Los Angeles on Sunday and will be hosted by Andy Samberg, has the potential to be groundbreaking.

To date, no woman of colour has ever won the outstanding lead actress in a drama award. Yet this year, both How to Get Away with Murder’s Viola Davis and Empire’sTaraji P Henson stand a strong chance of taking home the award over fellow nominees Claire Danes (for Homeland), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Mad Men (Elizabeth Moss) and Robin Wright (House of Cards).

Both shows have been massively successful. In February, Empire – a torrid soap with a largely African American cast set in the music industry – astonishingly became the first show since 1992 to increase its ratings over the course of its first five weeks on air (most shows have a popular first week, then immediately plunge in week two). Empire is also hugely popular on social media, with a much-anticipated second series due to launch on Fox next week.

Henson, who plays Cookie, a soap villainess in the tradition of Dynasty’s Alexis Colby, has “a very good shot” at the prize, says Daniel Montgomery, a senior editor at awards prognostication website GoldDerby.

Davis, meanwhile, will be hoping the Emmy will provide company for the Screen Actors Guild award she won in January for female actor in a drama series. During her speech, she thanked How to Get Away With Murder’s production team “for thinking that a sexualised, messy, mysterious woman could be a 49-year-old, dark-skinned African American woman who looks like me”.

Transparent, Amazon’s show about a transgender woman played by Jeffrey Tambor, may also break new ground. If it wins the Emmy for outstanding comedy, it will be the first show on a streaming service to take one of the two major awards. The same will be true if Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt wins – though both face stiff competition from perpetual winner Modern Family, expected to take the prize for the sixth time.

House of Cards or Orange Is the New Black could also provide Netflix with its first major awards triumph if they can best Better Call Saul, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland and Mad Men in the race for outstanding drama.

GoldDerby’s Montgomery describes Tambor, up for lead actor in a comedy, as “the safest frontrunner in any category at the Emmys”. A victory for Transparent would cap been a banner year for transgender visibility on television, which began when Laverne Cox became the first trans actor to win an Emmy, for Orange Is the New Black, and continued with the launch of Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show I am Cait, which charts her exploration of her new female identity.

At last week’s Creative Arts Emmys, which honour technical achievements in television, Transparent won awards for costumes, main title music, and Bradley Whitford’s guest performance. “I love to be in a show that is a voice of understanding, compassion and radical inclusion,” Whitford said in his acceptance speech. “We’re not there yet, but non-judgment day is coming.”

 Amy Schumer, currently the hottest talent in American comedy, is a favourite to win an award. Her show Inside Amy Schumer has been nominated for the inaugural award for variety sketch series, while she has also been recognised in the categories for lead actress in a comedy, writing for a variety sketch series, and directing for a variety sketch series.

Meanwhile, the offscreen awards categories are also becoming marginally less male, though women are still woefully under-represented. On Thursday, the Women’s Media Centre analysed the writing, editing, producing and directing categories and found that this year this year 25% of the nominees are female – slightly up from the 22% average over the previous 10 years.

“The bottom line: if more women were hired as writers, directors, editors, producers, and especially as creators and executive producers, the talent pool for nominations would be more reflective of the overall population and audience – more than half of which are women,” Julie Burton, the WMC president said.

It’s not just political and social changes threatening to drag the Emmys into the modern day, but the rules behind the awards themselves. Earlier this year the Academy ofTelevision Arts and Sciences, which runs the show, made some alterations to reflect changing viewing habits and to prevent shows from “category shopping”, or bending the rules to insert their shows into the categories they were most likely to win.

Under this new rubric, all 30-minute shows are considered comedies and all hour-long programmes go into the drama categories. Appeals can still be made – Glee successfully lobbied to compete as a comedy for its final season – but Orange is the New Black failed and will be competing in the drama category for the first time.

“Emmy judging is generally preferential, so in order to have the voters rank the nominations one against the other, apples need to compete against apples,” John Leverence, senior vice-president of awards for the academy, told the Guardian. “If category shopping results in apples mixed in with oranges, there can be no true preferential voting.”

This change is also a response to the proliferation of anthology shows such as True Detective and American Horror Story, which change their storylines and casts each season. Last year the two shows competed in the drama and miniseries categories respectively, even though they are of a similar format.

Under the new rules, they have both been shuttled to a category called “limited series” defined as “programmes of two or more episodes with a total running time of at least 150 minutes that tell a complete, non-recurring story, and do not have an ongoing storyline and/or main characters in subsequent seasons”.

British hopes at the awards are represented by eight nominations apiece for Wolf Halland Downton Abbey, with UK actors up Emmys including Ricky Gervais (outstanding lead actor in a limited series or a movie for the Derek special), David Oyelowo (for HBO’s Nightingale, in which he plays a man descending into insanity) and Alan Cumming (for The Good Wife.)

While some are having their first shots, there are many final chances for Emmy favorites. The Colbert Report, which went off the air at the end of 2014 so that Stephen Colbert could take the reins of CBS’s Late Show, and the iteration of The Daily Show fronted by Jon Stewart, will square off for the last time in the Variety categories.

This year will be Mad Men’s fifth and final chance to win the outstanding drama series trophy – an award it has taken three times. Though Mad Men’s actors have never won for their roles in the show, Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks are all nominated.

Hamm, who plays dissipated adman Don Draper, is frontrunner in the outstanding lead actor category against Bob Odenkirk (for Better Call Saul), Kyle Chandler (Bloodline), Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Jeff Daniels (The Newsroom) and Liev Schreiber (Ray Donovan).

Game of Thrones also has a chance to enter the record books on Sunday night. This year, it is the most nominated show – with 24 nods in all – and it swept the board at the Creative Arts Emmys, winning eight trophies. Just two more wins on the main stage will beat the nine trophies won by The West Wing in 2000, currently the record holder.

Will a fantasy show set in a fictional medieval kingdom be the main winner on the year the Emmys finally face the future?