Emmy’s Hot Shots

New rules mean this year’s nominations could be more adventurous

Nominating ballots for the 59th annual Primetime Emmys are being sent out this week, and while HBO’s The Sopranos is a heavy favorite to garner a bundle, Emmy always has its own logic.

Viewers and voters will find out July 19 when nominees are announced. Between now and then, the campaigning is on. The awards are given out on Fox on Sept. 16.

This year’s nominees could be an interesting batch. The Riches from FX is getting buzz, as is a steadily improving Brothers & Sisters from ABC. Ugly Betty is getting beautiful press and is a nod to both diversity and programming that’s a breath of fresh air.

On the other hand, The King of Queens was never a critic or Emmy fave, but it was a steady performer for CBS. Now that it has been put out to pasture, it could gain a nomination as a gesture of respect.

And if Emmy nominates Friday Night Lights, Heroes and 30 Rock in major categories, this award show could turn into a great night for Kevin Reilly, the ghost of NBC primetime present. As NBC programming chief, he put all those shows on and just got booted.

Critics would faint if Sci Fi’s Battlestar Galactica was even recognized, so maybe it will just have to settle for the super-prestigious Peabody Award it received—last year.

Consider for a moment the Los Angeles-based Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS), which resembles the bourgeoisie during the French Revolution: It tries to please both the classes and masses and gets it in the neck from all sides.

Fixing the Rules

Last year, ATAS tweaked the rules for the primetime Emmys. An Academy-wide vote chose the top 10 finishers in the principal drama and comedy categories. These were whittled down in the second round by blue-ribbon panels that tried to make sure they didn’t end up nominating the same old list of familiar shows.

This idea didn’t work well, and the awards show will probably be remembered more for the snubs than for the winners. For example, Fox’s House was nominated as the best series, but its star and dominating presence, Hugh Laurie, was not nominated. NBC’s much-talked-about sitcom My Name Is Earl got stiffed. So did its star, Jason Lee. To fix this mess, this year, the second round will be shared 50-50 between a general vote and panel picks.

The new rules strive to balance what ATAS Awards Senior VP John Leverence calls the “wisdom of the people” with the wisdom of experts, although all are Academy voters.

ATAS has also added a Lost rule, which asks that complex episodes be accompanied by a written summary—a sort of CliffsNotes for non-regular watchers among the Academy’s 1,300 voting members. Lost was skunked in the 2006 drama series nominations, and many attributed it to the submission of an episode described as complicated/confusing.

“The process of submitting select episodes certainly doesn’t favor a serialized program that would better be judged on its season in totality rather than just a segment,” says Rob Owen, critic for Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and president of the Television Critics Association. “It’s like judging the merits of a book by reading a single chapter.”

Emmy's Quirks

Emmy voters often have movie stars in their eyes. Consider the disproportionate number of big film names that have won lead actor or actress in a TV miniseries or movie over the past decade: Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, William H. Macy, Maggie Smith, Laura Linney, Judy Davis, Halle Berry, Albert Finney, Kenneth Branagh, Beau Bridges, Stanley Tucci, Gary Sinise, and Helen Mirren.

A hue and cry last year arose from Ellen Burstyn’s nomination for a 14-second, 38-word supporting turn in the HBO film Mrs. Harris. Burstyn’s victory last year yielded what has been nicknamed the “Ellen Burstyn rule,” which requires that a nominee appear in an episode or movie for at least 5% of screen time.

This year, some major names really did star in some major work. AMC’s Broken Trail, starring Robert Duvall, was a major television event. So was Queen Latifah in HBO’s Life Support. But Emmy voters like to show they have a heart. So Lifetime’s affecting Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomycould be nominated. Even more likely is TNT film The Ron Clark Story, about a teacher in Harlem, played by Matthew Perry.

Oldies, Not Goodies

Emmy voters tend to be creatures of habit.

Although freshman series do get nominated, the winners list is usually a different story. Old favorites like The West Wing linger on, while newer opponents like The Practice (2001), 24 (2002) and Six Feet Under (2003) await their day to become old favorites.

Last year, 24 finally reached that status, beating contenders that included Grey’s Anatomy and House.

Dare anyone predict that American Idol, the nation’s top-rated show, has paid enough dues after losing to Amazing Race every year since the reality competition Emmy was created?

“Yes,” says USA Today TV critic Robert Bianco, “if only members actually watched to see how bad Amazing Race looked and how well-presented American Idol was this season.”

Of this, he harbors doubt.

“We don’t know a lot about Emmy voters, but as any TV critic or reporter will tell you, the people actively making TV don’t have time to watch much of it,” he says. “So you get voters that either don’t watch a lot of TV or have been out of TV a long time.”

Hidden Biases

Critics often take pride in honoring low-rated choices, such as Veronica Mars. So it seems a double standard for critics to also complain that Emmy voters don’t pay enough attention to popularity.

“That’s a valid argument, except that the Academy also ignores popular shows that are well-done,” says Bianco. “Shows on networks aimed at younger audiences like Buffy the Vampire Slayer never got a chance, nor do smaller cable shows like Rescue Me that get pounded into dust by the HBO promotion machine.”

Emmy expert Tom O’Neil, writing on Los Angeles Times’ Website, The Envelope, has suggested expanding the number of episodes submitted in the first round from one to three and increasing the total first-round picks to a top 15 or even 20.

Of course, such remedies also might eliminate the only deeply emotional part of the Emmys: outrage.

Despite attempts to make Emmy selection a science, the Academy includes some historic prejudices.

O’Neil recently cautioned on his blog that the buzz-generating Heroes “may be cursed because it’s a fantasy thriller. Emmy voters, just like Oscar voters, tend to prefer realistic fare with artsy pretensions.”

TV Guide chief critic Matt Roush shares the concern. “Will the Academy’s legendary bias against genre programming deny Heroes a shot at the limelight?” he asks. “It’s the sort of imaginative, daring breakthrough hit that deserves to be noticed.”

Tradition has also been an obstacle to recognizing hybrid formats, a factor Roush says could hurt early favorite Ugly Betty if voters don’t grasp its blend of archness and heart.

And while the Emmy period encompasses June 1, 2006, to May 31, 2007, voters often forget summer series, perhaps hurting Deadwood despite the praised performances of Ian McShane and Gerald McRaney.

“High-Water Mark”

This year’s Emmy telecast, Sept. 16 on Fox, is likely to surpass the dismal audience of just 16.2 million viewers who saw the Emmy show on NBC last summer.

In large part, that low viewership was due to NBC’s need to move the show up a month to August, because its coverage of Sunday-night football began in September.

With so many categories and such complicated ways of determining winners, it’s no wonder some viewers are turned off.

Mark McGuire, TV critic at the Albany N.Y. Times-Union notes the sometimes bad picks are actually proof of the medium’s potency. There’s enough good stuff to argue about what shows got shafted.

“We complain about chowderhead voters who envelop themselves in the familiar and reject deserving choices,” says McGuire. “But the awards should be a night to recognize excellence in what is a high-water mark for the medium. For all our complaining, quality TV has never been more bountiful.”


The Emmy Rewards

Studios and networks scramble for the DVD sales, good buzz and pink-slip-prevention benefits of winning a statuette. With nomination ballots in the mail this week, the race intensifies