Mixed signals

A new voting system and an August Emmy ceremony have everyone in a tizzy.

In a typical year, Aug. 25 would mean there are still two or three weeks to go before the Primetime Emmy Awards telecast, rather than T minus 48 hours. But forget that whole notion of business as usual this time: Shrouded in grumbling and more than a little controversy, the 58th annual kudofest celebrating television's finest, airing this year on NBC, is set to take place Sunday at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. Host Conan O'Brien will preside over this Good Ship Lollipop and is advised to bring his A material to elevate what has come to feel like an incessant din of disenchantment.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The Emmys, after all, are coming off a rare ratings upswing in 2005: A 12.5 household rating and 18.6 million total viewers for CBS' Ellen DeGeneres-hosted telecast marked a healthy 33% household increase from the 2004 ceremony (which drew a scant 9.4/13.8 million, the lowest such figures in 15 years). Last year, the Emmys were flush with energy and momentum, thanks in large measure to the excitement brought to the table by ABC's rookie-series phenoms "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," which instilled the feeling that network TV was on a creative high.

A year later, the thrill, clearly, is gone. So completely has it disappeared that ABC and its disgusted entertainment chief Stephen McPherson are, seemingly out of petty frustration, counterprogramming the Emmycast with the 2003 hit feature film "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," defying an unwritten rule that one not attempt to crush a ceremony honoring those in one's industry (including many on one's own network).

What had McPherson particularly upset was the fact that "Lost" and "Housewives" barely register on the radar among the current noms. They were shut out of their respective outstanding-series categories -- this, after "Lost" won for top drama in 2005 -- and none of the acting leads on either show is nominated.

But then, ABC hardly has been singled out during an Emmy year rife with what many see as glaring omissions and equally shocking inclusions. Among the former, three of last year's four winners in the lead comedy and drama series acting categories -- NBC's "Medium" lead Patricia Arquette, "Housewives" lead Felicity Huffman and two-time winner James Spader of ABC's "Boston Legal" -- do not appear on the list at all in 2006. Three-time winners Edie Falco and James Gandolfini of HBO's "The Sopranos" and Golden Globe victor Hugh Laurie of the Fox medical drama "House" also failed to land nominations.

Meanwhile, underdogs including Kevin James of CBS' "The King of Queens," Lisa Kudrow of HBO's canceled "The Comeback," Geena Davis of ABC's "Commander in Chief" (also canceled) and Christopher Meloni of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" scored noms this time. Then there is Ellen Burstyn: The distinguished, veteran performer is nominated as supporting actress for the HBO docudrama "Mrs. Harris" despite having appeared in the telefilm for a scant 14 seconds, uttering all of 38 words.

Much (but not all) of the debate about the nominations has centered on a ballyhooed new two-pronged voting experiment that added a blue-ribbon-panel element to the process in hope it might stoke diversity into an event that most agree has devolved into predictability. Peer committees whittled potential nominees in the top-series categories from 10 to five and lead-series performers from 15 to five, with each race judged on single episodic submissions.

But the old proverb holds that one can't satisfy all of the people all of the time -- or, in the case of the Emmys, anybody any of the time. The system helped land plenty of new names on the list and resulted in far less year-to-year rubber-stamping of nominees in the six affected categories, but it was not the wide-ranging change yearned for or anticipated. The chronically overlooked Lauren Graham of the WB Network's "Gilmore Girls" remains on the outside looking in, and FX dramas "Rescue Me" and "The Shield" did not crash that top-series party (though "Rescue" star Denis Leary scored a lead actor nom).

In the main, the networks that generally receive little or no Emmy attention (the ready-to-merge WB and UPN, FX, Sci Fi Channel) received, well, little or no attention. But the buzz is that, gripes and all, the revamped system for the highest-profile categories will return in some form next year.

Of more immediate concern to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and NBC is the earlier airdate, necessitated by NBC's newly acquired Sunday NFL franchise. The academy wanted to keep the ceremony on Sunday, but NBC wasn't interested in disrupting a regular-season football schedule set to kick off the Sunday after Labor Day. Something, or someone, had to give -- and it was ATAS, which settled for the less-than-ideal prospect of competing with pre-Labor Day vacations and a viewership still locked in a summertime, off-season mind-set.

ABC's decision to pit a high-profile theatrical feature against the Emmys also won't help. As O'Brien laments, "ABC putting that movie against us in August leaves us fighting with daggers over the equivalent of a crouton."

Regarding the date change, TV Academy senior vp awards John Leverence notes that the ATAS board of governors debated moving the Emmys to a Monday or Thursday in September but decided against doing so out of concern for attendees fighting weekday traffic to attend the ceremony or get home to watch the broadcast.

"There were also potential issues with the production schedule if we'd moved the show off of Sunday, so in the end, Sunday night just seemed the most reasonable solution," Leverence says. "The last Sunday it could be done without a football conflict was Aug. 27."

That's all well and good, except homes-using-television levels usually are down 10%-11% in August compared with three weeks later at the dawn of the fall TV season. The hope from the academy perspective is that "August is becoming the new September," Leverence says. It sounds good, anyway.

"Things seem to let out earlier and start up earlier these days," Leverence adds. "Summer TV is a different animal than it was 10 or 15 years ago, with reality shows driving up viewing and fewer reruns in general. You also don't really have a traditional fall premiere week anymore. We're hoping the result is that we'll be able to put the show on before Labor Day and not take too big a ratings hit."

ATAS chairman Dick Askin claims not to be overly worried -- though he might be the only one. "If we have a good show, the people will come," he says.

Despite a widespread perception that all is askew in Emmyland, it remains entirely possible that a compelling telecast will emerge. There are several intriguing questions going in, including whether critically praised NBC upstart "The Office" can rise to snatch a top comedy series win slightly more than a year after being pilloried for having the temerity to follow in the footsteps of the beloved British edition.

In addition, while "Lost" is nowhere to be found on the drama series list, the category sports a fascinating four-way matchup pitting old warhorses "Sopranos," Fox's "24" and NBC's swan-songing "The West Wing" (the latter looking to snare a final slice of |glory after four previous outstanding-drama triumphs) against ABC's young medical-soap upstart "Grey's Anatomy."

And will this be the year when Fox's "American Idol" finally topples CBS' "The Amazing Race" in their reality-competition series square-off? "Race" has won the category three years in a row, and a fourth straight triumph undoubtedly would spark still more audible dismay from the "Idol" multitudes.

Are these Emmys truly a solid representation of the highest achievement during the primetime season recently passed? It depends on who one asks, of course. If some would say no, then others might applaud the fact that television's top-rated sitcom, CBS' "Two and a Half Men," finally broke through in a measurable way with nominations for top comedy series, lead actor (Charlie Sheen) and supporting actor (Jon Cryer). Also, few would argue that "24" and "Anatomy" are hugely popular with the masses and rank near the top in terms of consistent buzz, commensurate with scoring the most series noms with 12 and 11, respectively.

Perhaps it's simply the Emmys' annual destiny to polarize and agitate the TV industry and critical community alike. By this time Monday, though, we probably will know at least one thing: how well O'Brien stacks up against "Pirates" star Johnny Depp. At least NBC and the TV Academy have this going for them: Unlike the Depp feature, this year's Emmys are no rerun -- for better or worse.