Noel Murray at the AV Club has an interview with Jim Parsons (the thinking man’s Jaleel White), an excellent interview that places particular emphasis on the multi-camera, live-audience format and the role of the audience as a sixth character on the show.
Because, as the article notes, The Big Bang Theory now gets a lot of love from people in the TV industry, this is likely to be the year Parsons gets some Emmy recognition; he didn’t get nominated last year, but he has to be considered a favourite to get at least a nomination, if not the award. But upon thinking about whether he has a chance of winning, I realized that I don’t even know what category he would be nominated in. Actors on ensemble shows, particularly ensemble comedies, can often be categorized as either supporting players or leads, and can be submitted in either category.
Take Alec Baldwin. There’s one person on 30 Rock who is clearly a lead: Tina Fey. Then there are a bunch of people who are clearly supporting players. But Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy could be considered both a supporting actor and a lead: his character is clearly secondary to Liz (and his “and” billing at the end of the credits is usually given to high-profile supporting actors, not leads). But he’s the most important male character, and therefore could be thought of as the lead. Baldwin chose to submit himself as a lead actor, but he could have gone the other way. And then you’ve got Friends, where actors were literally nominated in both categories — not at the same time, but one year Jennifer Aniston was nominated for Supporting Actress, and then a couple of years later she was nominated as a lead. All six characters were of equal importance, so you could consider them all leads, or all supporting actors with nobody in particular to support.
With Jim Parsons, show doesn’t have one person who’s clearly a lead, though it does have at least two characters who are clearly supporting players (Howard and Raj). His status is much like Alec Baldwin’s, in that he could be considered a very popular, very prominent supporting actor or (because he’s the breakout character and takes up so much screen time) the male lead. It really mostly depends on what category he’s submitted in.
Since the distinction between lead and supporting is almost meaningless on a lot of shows, the best reason for submitting an actor in a particular category is that the submitter thinks there’s a better chance of a nomination or win in that category; the network or the producers will often pressure the actor to submit in the category which seems more winnable. The reason it was a good idea to submit Baldwin as a lead is that Jeremy Piven has the supporting actor category locked up every year. If Baldwin had been nominated in the supporting category, he would have lost to Piven the way Neil Patrick Harris and many others do every award season. As a lead actor, he won in his second try. Piven’s antics along with a certain amount of Entourage backlash may finally cost him the award this year (in which case, please give it to Harris already), but Parsons probably has a better chance of winning in the lead category.