Emmy Awards Move To Shake Up Show

Tuesday, July 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — It's the attitude, not the years, that have made the Emmy Awards seem old in their fifth decade.

Cutting-edge programs like Garry Shandling's ``The Larry Sanders Show'' — with 56 nominations over six years and just three trophies — were snubbed under a voting system that drew judges with conservative artistic tastes.

After viewing an episode last year of ``The Sopranos,'' the no-holds-barred mob drama, one judge sniffed, ``I could never vote for a show which used that kind of language,'' according to an academy insider.

But when the 52nd annual primetime Emmy nominees are announced Thursday, they'll be judged under a revamped system that could favor bolder shows.

In a bid to energize the TV honors, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is abandoning its longtime ``blue ribbon'' judging panels that required members to commit to a weekend videotape orgy at one hotel. While that ensured judges viewed each nominee, it favored members who had more leisure time and tended to be older.

Now, judges can plop down in front of their own TV sets at their convenience to watch tapes.

The academy, which is experimenting with the approach in the top categories, says change was overdue: Last year, the Emmy broadcast drew its lowest ratings since 1990.

``You may see programs win that traditionally have been seen as too avant garde or too edgy for the academy,'' said academy President James B. Chabin. ``What we're trying to do is throw the doors open and bring in a new generation.''

Which could mean new hope for frisky sitcoms (and potential nominees) like ``Malcolm in the Middle,'' ``Will & Grace'' and ``Sex and the City,'' the fierce ``Sopranos,'' or acclaimed newcomers ``The West Wing'' and ``Once and Again.''

``The Sopranos'' received a leading 16 nominations in 1999 but lost out as best drama to ``The Practice'' and won only two major awards (for lead actress Edie Falco and for best drama series writing).

At least the show made it to the party. Many younger-skewing series, such as ``Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' have failed to merit serious Emmy consideration.

The numbers indicate the revised system is working, the academy says. About 1,200 panelists volunteered last year for hotel duty, said John Leverence, vice president for awards. This year, there could be up to 4,000 judges.

The biggest surge has come in the drama and comedy series categories, which have jumped from about 100-150 judges each to about 400-500 so far, Leverence said.

``I've got to be hopeful that this year there might be a chance for a spoiler or surprise just because there's new blood involved in the process,'' said TV Guide critic Matt Roush. The awards show, with Shandling as host, is Sept. 10 and airs on ABC.

Change can't come fast enough for younger academy members.

``The next generation of television creatives is so technologically savvy that, if I've heard it once, I've heard it 100 times, 'When are we going to be able to download nominations on the Internet, vote, certify that we voted and E-mail our votes in?''' Chabin said.

That the academy might be behind the techno-curve seems surprising in an industry always lusting for the latest gizmos. But the academy's membership doesn't reflect Hollywood at large: It's older, whiter and more male.

New members generally were brought in by buddies; through a direct-mail campaign this summer, the academy is trying to draw more women and minorities, Chabin said.

Not all are impressed by the awards shakeup. Thomas O'Neil, author of ``The Emmys'' (Perigee), thinks the revised system is full of static.

``The Emmys were the only show business award in which every nominee was guaranteed that their work will be seen by every voter. Now that guarantee is gone,'' O'Neil said.

The academy's plan to ensure that voters watch at home by requiring signed affidavits is no substitute for the blue-ribbon panels, O'Neil said. He thinks the panel system need expansion, not abolition.

Instead of being limited to one weekend in one hotel, multiple panels should be held at different institutions — such as the Museum of Television and Radio, in New York — to accommodate voters, he said.

Emmy's track record is proof of the old approach's effectiveness to O'Neil, who notes that most of TV's finest work has been honored over the years. He also sees panel judging as the underdog's protector.

``The greatest legacy of these awards is that shows like `Hill Street Blues' and `Cagney & Lacey' were close to being canceled in their first season. Then they won Emmys, the networks kept them on the air and they went on to live forever in TV's pantheon.''

Shandling's take on the affair is more lighthearted.

``Sounds like my show would have gotten watched more under this system than in the old days. Because when I hear 450 (judges), that's bigger than my audience was.''