The children's hour is a mixed bag of goodies


The outstanding children's program category at this year's Primetime Emmy Awards is -- as usual -- shaping up to be one of the more apples-vs.-oranges competitions on the nominations list. There's the Disney Channel tween/family comedies "Hannah Montana," "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody" and "That's So Raven" doing battle with the half-hour PBS documentary "When Parents Are Deployed" (about the lives of military families) and the self-explanatory Nickelodeon report "Nick News With Linda Ellerbee: Private Worlds: Kids and Autism."

"How do you compare a show on autism with 'Hannah Montana'?" asks TV veteran Ellerbee, the executive producer and host of the "Nick News" special (her 14th Emmy nomination for the franchise; she's won three times). "Last year, we had a show on homeless kids after Katrina, and we had to compete with (Disney Channel's) 'High School Musical.' I mean, it's a little crazy. Both shows are worthy, but they're so different. How do you even begin to assess that?"

A good question, indeed, but one the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is not inclined to address as the Emmys already are top-heavy in categories -- particularly for the Sept. 8 creative arts/technical honors being handed out at the Shrine Auditorium (where the children's category winner will also be announced). The one answer: There was a tie last year between "High School Musical" and the HBO special "I Have Tourette's But Tourette's Doesn't Have Me." But to achieve that requires a rare, precise deadlock.

Usually, it's the lighter fare that gets squeezed out when serious programs are gauged opposite more comedic or frivolous ones. To Dennis Rinsler, executive producer on the nominated "That's So Raven," the answer is to split the children's category and honor nonfiction/drama separately from comedy and musical programming.

"When I was doing 'Even Stevens' for Disney, we always seemed to be up against (PBS') 'Reading Rainbow,' " Rinsler recalls. "Who's going to vote against reading, you know? We're just pure entertainment, and that in itself shouldn't be a liability. But what the hell, it's great being nominated anyway. You get a free limo ride and hopefully some shrimp after the show, so it's all good."

The trio of noms for Disney Channel is a first for the network in one category in a single Emmy year, its previous high having been two in both 1992 and 2000. Gary Marsh, Disney Channel's president of entertainment, sees the honors as a validation of not only the increased popularity of the network's live-action comedy fare but of its quality, too.

"We seem to be the only ones left standing who are offering family comedy in any measurable way," Marsh points out. "The networks have sort of gone out of that business, creating a crater-sized vacuum we're only too happy to fill. And this Emmy attention is the cherry atop the sundae of a very good year."

The fact that Disney's commitment to comedy has kept veteran sitcom writers and producers in business is one reason why shows like "Hannah Montana" and "The Suite Life" have caught the eye of the TV academy, believes "Suite Life" executive producer Danny Kallis. "The writers and producers on these Disney shows are doing them at a very high level," Kallis says, "in part because we've got primetime broadcast network experience on shows like 'The Nanny' (and) 'Silver Spoons.' And we're pulling in the adult audience at the same time as a result."

Agrees "Hannah Montana" executive producer Steven Peterman: "I was on the original writing staff of 'Murphy Brown' and was nominated for six Emmys. I've won four. The other people on the show have similar credentials. So what we set out to do from the start, which I think we've accomplished, is make a show that all kinds of kids could laugh at and parents could watch without wanting to kill themselves.

"It's also enormously gratifying to get this Emmy nomination in our first year of qualifying with 'Hannah.' But I've got to say, it's really neither fair nor realistic to speculate on whether we can win against Linda Ellerbee or 'When Parents Are Deployed.' We can't get upset either way."

And while she has enjoyed consistent success with the Emmys throughout her 16 years of making shows for "Nick News," Ellerbee would just as soon not even ask people to single out a children's programming winner. "We should just say, 'Hooray, isn't it great this stuff is on TV for kids!' " Ellerbee believes. "But as a nominee, I plan to attend. And what the hell, I hope I win."