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Changes in Emmy voting promise surprises tonight

Sunday, September 10, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

After last year's Emmy Awards when "The Practice" beat out "The Sopranos" for best drama series, critics cried foul. Some viewers thought Tony's crew was robbed.

Fans wanted to have someone at the Emmy organization whacked.

It was difficult to believe a conventional legal drama, good as it was, deserved to beat HBO's "The Sopranos" and its groundbreaking first season.

So the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences changed its voting procedures for the 2000 Emmy Awards, which air tonight at 8 on ABC. The Emmy preshow, with Tom Bergeron ("Hollywood Squares") as host, begins at 7 p.m. Red-carpet arrivals coverage begins at 6 p.m. on E! with Joan and Melissa Rivers.

Meryl Marshall, chairwoman of ATAS, said a cumulative effect led to the change in the voting procedure, but she acknowledged the impact last year's awards had on the decision.

"The most significant thing was the sense of the room last year," Marshall said at a July press conference in Pasadena, Calif. "There were a number of extremely qualified people who were active members in the academy who had not participated in the judging. And the sense was we had to figure out why, and we had to make sure that they did."

Rather than convening panels at a hotel to judge the programs as had been done in the past (with a monitor observing to be sure voters actually watched the whole program), this year's Emmy voters were allowed to watch videotapes of the nominees at home. They also had to sign an affidavit swearing they watched every second.

"It was clear that if we made it more flexible and gave people an opportunity to do the work at home, it would get done by many of those people," Marshall said.

In July, Academy officials said they expected participation from 3,500 members of the TV Academy, up from 1,200 who took part in last year's Emmy voting process.

But the change doesn't sit well with Tom O'Neil, who wrote the book on the Emmys -- literally. O'Neil's "The Emmys" ($21.95, Perigee) lists all 6,500 winners of prime-time Emmy awards and includes a history of ATAS.

O'Neil, who also wrote a book about the Grammys, said the Emmy panel system was superior to all other forms of voting in show business because "it guaranteed every single nominee will be seen by every single voter.

"Ratings have never mattered at the Emmy awards, and the greatest legacy is that 'Cheers,' 'Hill Street Blues,' 'Mission: Impossible' and 'Cagney and Lacey' and many other shows would have been canceled early on," O'Neil said. "They were all saved by winning Emmy awards in their first season and went on to join TV's pantheon. From now on we're going to have a popularity contest, and the triumph of the underdog is over."

O'Neil distrusts Emmy voters to sit through the tapes when they pop them into VCRs at home, fearing innovation will be dismissed and tapes fast-forwarded. Under the new system, O'Neil fears, the shaky, hand-held camera work on "NYPD Blue" would have been perceived as "juvenile and amateurish, yet it is a breakthrough."

The bawdy, sometimes profane "Chris Rock Show" on HBO is another example of a program that benefited from the panel system. O'Neil said the panels forced judges to sit through the entire program.

"If they had gotten the tapes at home, they would have turned off the tapes so fast and run out of the room," O'Neil said. "But they gave Chris Rock a chance, and what happened was he won two Emmy awards because he deserved to win them."

O'Neil said there are only a few things wrong with the panel system: It penalizes serialized shows, and it doesn't prevent actors from making bad choices in the tapes they submit for consideration.

O'Neil said "The Sopranos" probably lost because when voters unfamiliar with the series watched episodes (eight episodes are submitted and each panel watches two episodes from every nominated drama series) there was no context for Nancy Marchand's duplicitous doings.

Susan Lucci blundered year after year when submitting her tape to the daytime Emmys, O'Neil said, which is why it took her so long to win. In the prime-time Emmys, actors submit a single, representative episode to be judged.

"Last year, the single worst blunder in the history of tape submissions was when Sarah Jessica Parker submitted the farting episode of 'Sex and the City,' one of the single most tasteless half-hours in TV history," O'Neil said.

Emmy voters typically want to see an actor's range, which is why he predicts Sela Ward ("Once and Again") will beat out Amy Brenneman ("Judging Amy"), Juliana Margulies ("ER") and Edie Falco and Lorainne Bracco ("The Sopranos").

"Sela Ward's show stands out so much from the others," O'Neil said. "It's the season opener of 'Once and Again' and she's got a big crying scene, a tender romantic scene. It's a showboat performance. She pulled off an upset in that category in '94 when she won for 'Sisters' under the panel judging system. We'll see whether that's possible now."

The Emmys also tend to ignore young-skewing shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Party of Five" (in its glory days). O'Neil accurately predicted before the Emmy nomination announcements in July that "Malcolm in the Middle," another young-skewing show, would not get nominated for best comedy series.

He said the Emmys consistently ignored "Roseanne" in her show's best years and currently leaves out "The Drew Carey Show" because "the Beverly Hills crowd that votes on these awards, they simply don't get Drew Carey and Roseanne."

That may be a good reason to implement the new watch-at-home system. Television Academy member Jerry Hughes, who runs his own production company out of Allison Park, got to vote for the first time in 20 years under the new system. He'd been invited to participate in panel judging in the past, but he would have had to pay his own airfare to Los Angeles.

Hughes, who produces commercials and music specials, takes free-lance assignments and worked on "The Young and the Restless" when it occasionally filmed on location in Pittsburgh in the '80s and '90s, said it's important for a national award to reflect a broad swath of the membership.

"It's important people other than those in Los Angeles and New York have some influence on the awards," Hughes said.

This year he got to vote in the best comedy series and the best variety, music or comedy series categories. He watched his tapes, all 11 hours' worth, alone.

"I watched them at my office at an old farmhouse in Gibsonia," Hughes said. "I didn't want my 16-year-old daughter saying, 'Dad, you're not going to vote for that, are you?' "

That was important to Hughes, and it's another possible benefit of the new system.

"I've been on panels and you sit there and everybody is laughing around you and you do tend to be influenced by the people around you," Hughes said.

But O'Neil remains skeptical of the new system.

"There is nothing less at stake here than the next 'Hill Street Blues,'" he said. "The next 'Cheers' will no longer have a fair chance if those people do not watch the tapes. Those judging panels kept TV's house in order because the small cable networks do win. My fear with the new system, if popularity prevails, Sci-Fi Channel and USA and AMC and Lifetime will never win Emmy awards due to voting block problems, which are rife at the Grammys. ... I want to be wrong about this, but my job in the meantime is to be skeptical."

O'Neil has his own gauge as to whether the Emmys' new voting procedure will succeed or fail. He recently convened his own panel, including TV Guide critic Matt Roush, and watched the tapes submitted in the lead actress in a comedy series category. Contenders include Jenna Elfman ("Dharma & Greg"), Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm in the Middle"), Debra Messing ("Will & Grace") and Sarah Jessica Parker ("Sex and the City").

"Patricia Heaton won in a landslide," O'Neil said. "Her one tape stood out so much, it would clearly win any judging panel vote. But if anyone else wins, that means voters did not watch their tapes."

Ironically, the change in voting that came about because "Sopranos" lost last year may have an impact on that drama's chances this year.

"This new voting system does favor buzz, and buzz favors 'The West Wing,' " O'Neil said, although he thinks "West Wing" would likely win either way. "It's a slam dunk under the old system and the new. It's much more emotional and sentimental, and it has sympathetic characters, unlike 'The Sopranos.' Plus, it feels important because it's about the president."

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