Academy celebrates diverse nominees

5:00 AM PST 09/14/2007 by Ray Richmond, AP

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OK, so everyone agrees HBO's "The Sopranos" has the outstanding drama series trophy pretty much locked up. But as it happens, there is another drama that will share the spotlight as Sunday night's 59th Primetime Emmy Awards unfold at the Shrine Auditorium: the tumultuous landscape of network television itself. And while most of the hot-button issues presently facing the television industry don't impact the awards directly, they supply something of a road map that promises to take us well beyond the New Jersey Turnpike and Tony's homicidal goombas.

Those issues include ongoing questions surrounding the authenticity of reality shows (and the building controversy over the new CBS series "Kid Nation"); the dwindling audience for traditional comedy; the fast-fading presence of made-for-TV movies on the broadcast networks; and, of course, a man named Sanjaya, whose joke of a candidacy on Fox's "American Idol" nearly transformed the show's ethos from one rewarding excellence to the glorification of camp before voters rode to the rescue just in time and sent him packing.

There was also the controversy surrounding Isaiah Washington's name-calling feud with co-star T.R. Knight on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy"; Knight received his first-ever Emmy nom (as supporting actor in a drama series), and one could argue that his persecution at the hands of Washington was partly responsible. The moral: Sticks and stones may break bones, but names will only help the one being called the name.

However, this year the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Emmy nomination choices seem to have largely eluded the kind of criticism and controversy that had so dogged the 2006 show, when performers like "Sopranos" regulars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco and Fox's "House" star Hugh Laurie failed to garner noms -- whereas Ellen Burstyn, who had an 11-second role in the HBO telepic "Mrs. Harris," did.

While the academy's Board of Governors has turned tweaks-to-the-rules and fixes-to-its-system into an annual event, the prevailing view is that they more or less got it right this time: lots of new faces and new blood mixed with plenty of the established and deserving. There is a certain freshness to the picks this time, particularly in the series and acting categories. One of the academy's moves that drew applause this year was its decision to weigh the Blue Ribbon Panels that had been instituted in 2006 and the academy-wide vote equally, as opposed to last year when the opinions of those on the panels had been given priority.

"We think it made a huge difference," believes TV academy chairman and CEO Dick Askin. "In hindsight, having the Blue Ribbon Panels take precedence over the popular vote wasn't terribly effective and really didn't make sense. But the sampling of more shows demonstrates that we came closer to a working model. There were a lot more new people and shows in the mix this time, which is what we strive for."

The TV academy also was able to overcome the Burstyn fiasco of the previous year by instituting an "Ellen Burstyn Rule" (Burstyn herself must be awfully proud) that requires the supporting-actor or -actress nominees in the longform categories to appear in a minimum of 5% of a given project -- so 7 1/2 minutes in a 90-minute film, for instance.

But one of the other things we learned about Emmy rules this year is that they're made to be broken. Witness the example of the USA Network miniseries "The Starter Wife." In order for it to qualify for this year's awards, the miniseries' six hours had to air in full by the night of May 31. But only the first two hour-long installments were scheduled for that night. Tough luck, right? Wrong. The producers and USA petitioned the academy board to allow them to stream the final four hours of the mini on the USA Network Web site late that night in lieu of being shown on the actual network, which the board approved.

Yes, the rules are the rules. Except when they're not.

But perhaps the single element of the past season that threatens to have the most impact on the awards themselves is the escalating disconnect between critical acclaim and popular success, which could serve to further distance the TV academy's choices from both the nation's television critics and TV viewers themselves.

Cases in point: 1. Critics may have championed the freshman NBC drama "Friday Night Lights," but they couldn't garner either an audience for the low-rated hour or any Emmy attention in the major categories; all they could manage to do was keep NBC from canceling it altogether. 2. No matter how loud a racket the critics make, it appears that the academy still isn't listening when it comes to nominations for HBO's "The Wire" and Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" -- or anything from FX or the CW, for that matter -- in the outstanding series categories. 3. Audiences are showing signs of being increasingly unreceptive to sampling (much less sticking with) what critics tell them they should. Aaron Sorkin's widely praised but monumentally ignored NBC hour "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" made that lesson abundantly clear.

Furthermore, many of the shows that have recently emerged as Emmy favorites aren't ratings blockbusters. Just look at NBC's "The Office," last year's winner for outstanding comedy series, which garnered a respectable 4.1 rating/11 share with the target 18-49 demographic but ranked well down the Nielsen list in total viewers; the peacock net's "30 Rock," one of this year's favorites for top comedy but the recipient of a paltry 2.7/7 in the 18-49 demo; and "The Sopranos" -- which, despite all the hype, posted diminished numbers this year, averaging between 10 and 11 million viewers weekly after having exceeded 14 million weekly at its Season 5 peak.

However, in the instances where a show fares well with audiences and receives better-than-average critical buzz, the TV academy is likely to pay heed, which was certainly the case with the impressive rookie showings of NBC's "Heroes" and ABC's "Ugly Betty" as well as the ongoing attention for "House" and "Grey's Anatomy."

Then there's the exceptional case of Fox's pop culture phenomenon "American Idol," which retained its chart-topping eminence and the esteem of critics in its sixth season, and has been honored with an Emmy nod in the reality-competition category each season it has been eligible -- but has also lost four consecutive times to CBS's "The Amazing Race" and could well be defeated for a fifth time on Sunday. In fact, "Idol" has the dubious distinction of having zero wins to show for its 22 nominations to date (though it could have broken that streak Sept. 8 at the Creative Arts Emmy Awards ceremony, which took place after this issue went to press).

In May, "Idol" executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick had a change of heart after agreeing to produce this year's Emmy telecast, opting out with the explanation that they were simply too busy. Of course, packed schedules aside, no one could really blame them if they had come out and admitted to having little interest in such a hands-on role with an awards competition that has been so singularly unkind. Veteran Ken Ehrlich was named to take over the controls, but the "Idol" presence will still be felt on the Emmy stage in the form of host Ryan Seacrest.

Seacrest represents a safe choice for the telecasting network, Fox, as well as the TV academy, as he is a proven and popular host. And as comedy continues its disappearing act in primetime, perhaps it was appropriate to eschew the prevailing wisdom that says an Emmy host should always be a comedian.

However, anyone who is anxious for a truly major shakeup in Emmyland could well get his wish next year thanks to the original-programming revolution that has exploded on basic cable this summer. It will, no doubt, come to be remembered as cable's Monster Summer (not to be confused with HBO's Mobster Spring), a season that included the launch of critically lauded dramas "Damages" (FX), "Saving Grace" (TNT) and "Mad Men" (AMC); the continued heat around TNT's "The Closer" and star Kyra Sedgwick; and, of course, Disney Channel's "High School Musical 2," its Aug. 17 premiere having been the single most watched program in basic cable history.

What this seems to augur is a major breakthrough year for basic cable at the Emmys on the horizon. Sedgwick, "Damages'" Glenn Close and "Saving Grace's" Holly Hunter appear primed to dominate the 2008 lead drama actress race, and two or three basic cable series look to be among the favorites for the top drama category. (To date, there hasn't been a single basic cable nominee in a top series race.) If the men of basic cable continue to draw academy voters' attention and the shadow cast by "High School Musical 2" stretches into next September, which both seem likely to happen, 2008 could be a very exciting year indeed.

But that's the future. Sunday night, by contrast, is destined to be about the past, and one mob masterpiece in particular, before it heads off to sleep permanently with the fishes.
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