Ruling class

5:00 AM PST 05/22/2007 by Ray Richmond, AP

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After having had its reputation battered by last year's wildly controversial Primetime Emmy Awards nominations, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences looks to the beginning of a new Emmy season determined to fix the problems that emerged in 2006 after a major rules overhaul. The idea was to close some of the much-publicized loopholes that allowed, for instance, Ellen Burstyn to be tabbed as a movie/miniseries supporting actress nominee for the HBO biopic "Mrs. Harris" despite having uttered all of 38 words in a performance spanning all of 11 seconds.

Thankfully, Burstyn didn't win, or this story might have detailed why the Emmys were forced to disband. And in taking steps to prevent such an embarrassment from ever happening again, the Television Academy has further tweaked its rules to foster the kind of wealth-spreading diversity that's long been lacking. Meaning that networks such as FX and its much-praised dramas "Rescue Me" and "The Shield," or the Sci Fi Channel and its critically revered hour "Battlestar Galactica," or perhaps Showtime and its dramas "Dexter" and "The Tudors" might finally get some major category attention.

Of course, the Television Academy had hoped to achieve that very same goal a year ago by adding a second round of voting in the series lead acting, drama and comedy categories. Under the revamped system, the top 15 vote-getters from a preliminary ballot for the acting categories and the top 10 for series advanced to a second round of blue-ribbon judging panels.

But when the nominations were revealed last year, it turned out that the process was flawed.

"We feel like we learned a lot last year in our first crack at two-tier judging," Television Academy chairman and CEO Dick Askin says.

"Our thinking was that with a couple of adjustments, we might be able to eliminate some of what turned out to be particular radical nomination swings from the year before. And to that end, we were pleased with the blue-ribbon panels as a concept in that it forces a viewing process that takes the choices out of the realm of straight popularity."

This year, the supporting and guest acting categories also will be evaluated using the preliminary ballot/blue-ribbon panels process, and judges will have the option of assessing the candidates in the comfort of their homes -- rather than having to travel to the Television Academy's headquarters in North Hollywood.

Blue-ribbon panels also will reconvene for the comedy and drama series categories, but those participants won't have the at-home option. The top 10 vote-getters for all series and acting categories will qualify for blue-ribbon judging, but the twist is that the judging panel will have only 50% of the final say in how the 10 get weeded down to the five ultimate category nominees. The entire Television Academy membership will have the remaining 50%.

It's naturally difficult to predict how the rule alterations will impact the top series and acting categories, but the intent at least is to tip the scales in favor of the candidacies of newcomers such as NBC's "Friday Night Lights" and ABC's "Ugly Betty" and more obscure quality shows such as Showtime's "Tudors" -- and away from longtime established favorites such as Fox's "24" (the top drama series victor a year ago) and the CBS comedy "Two and a Half Men."

No one will be able to gauge the success of the modifications until the nominations are announced July 19, of course. And while things didn't quite work out as planned a year ago, the fact that the Television Academy isn't throwing in the towel on its resolve to help level the Emmy playing field is being met with a measure of cautious optimism by those producers and networks who stand to be the most impacted.

"Battlestar" executive producer Ronald D. Moore believes the new rules might carry at least a glimmer of hope for his critically acclaimed but never-Emmy-nominated series.

"Mainstream awards competitions are loathe to recognize the sci-fi genre in general, and when you add 'Sci Fi Channel' to that mix, it's doubly difficult," Moore says. "But 'The X-Files' was able to break through and get recognized by the Emmys in the '90s. We also won a Peabody Award last year, and that could at least convince the panels to at least try our show. The panels are good because it carries the requirement of having to sample us, and we think that once they do, they'll be really surprised."

FX president and GM John Landgraf terms it "ridiculous" that none of his network's three acclaimed dramas -- "Rescue Me," "Shield" and "Nip/Tuck" -- have to date managed to score a nomination for outstanding drama series. He ascribes the oversight to the fact that FX has only been an original programming player for about five years.

"I'll say that I appreciate the fact that the (Television) Academy is making it a priority to tinker with the nominating process to bring it more balance," Landgraf says. "Leveling the playing field can't help but make the award more relevant to younger viewers and demonstrate that it really does honor the best rather than merely the most popular. It wasn't terribly successful last year."

Indeed, the 59th annual Primetime Emmy Awards -- set to take place Sept. 16 at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium and to be telecast on Fox -- would be hard-pressed to match last year's record level of criticism and condemnation. The nomination list fueled what turned out to be a perfect storm of controversy, rife with what many saw as glaring omissions and equally shocking inclusions.

In the lead comedy and drama series acting categories, three of the four winners from the year before failed even to be nominated. Three-time winners Edie Falco and James Gandolfini of HBO's "The Sopranos" and Golden Globe victor Hugh Laurie of Fox's medical drama "House" also failed to crack the list. Meanwhile, two nominees (Lisa Kudrow of HBO's "The Comeback" and Geena Davis for ABC's "Commander in Chief") earned nominations for first-year shows that tanked and were canceled. Then there was the whole Ellen Burstyn fiasco.

But many industry insiders are still finding reason to hope for a streamlined and improved -- or at least less polarizing -- Emmy nomination configuration. It's noteworthy that the Television Academy's board of governors has resisted the temptation to completely scrap last year's revamp and simply start over. They did, however, issue a directive requiring that for actors to be nominated for a TV-movie/mini role, they must have appeared in at least 5% of the finished project's total running time.

For a 90-minute movie, that would mean seven and a half minutes of screentime.

One other rule alteration this year affords series producers the opportunity to submit short essays as a contextual reference point in assessing the submitted episode(s) for such serialized hour series as ABC's "Lost" or "Desperate Housewives." Neither ABC series was nominated last year, and some insiders blamed the omission on the fact that the submitted episodes didn't quite work as well without a clear understanding of where they fell in the series' ongoing story lines.

Television Academy senior vp awards John Leverence maintains that these new modifications are relatively minor and that the baseline changes set down in 2006 remain intact.

Not everyone is convinced, though. "Everybody Hates Chris" executive producer Ali LeRoi isn't necessarily holding his breath that this is the case, given that his show airs on the CW.
"I'd honestly like to think the changes to the rules will make a difference, but too often it seems to be about where you are as much as how good you are," he says.

Is this destined to be the year when that wall finally crumbles? Leverence makes no predictions other than to foresee more storm clouds on the Television Academy's horizon, knowing perhaps better than anyone that you can't satisfy all of the people all of the time -- or, in the case of the Emmys, even half of them half of the time.

"You have to see it as simply the nature of the beast," Leverence acknowledges. "I honestly wouldn't even know how to handle it if we were to somehow leave everyone in agreement, but I wouldn't mind seeing what that felt like some time." 
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