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Rants -- And A Few Raves -- For Emmy Rules `Fix'

July 24, 2006|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

One Emmy voter calls it a "blunder" and yearns for a chance to do the whole thing over. Another expresses "dismay" at a ratings system that ranks "excellent" above "superior." The disgruntled entertainment president of one network fumes, "It's a problem."

And even one of the nominees calls it "freakazoid."

Yes, after several years in which the biggest issue was the usual-suspects nature of the nominees, the Emmys finally have a red-hot controversy going.

And no one's feeling the heat more than Dick Askin, the chairman and chief executive of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, who over the weekend saw a barely air-conditioned ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena turn into a battleground -- with him on one side and an army of unhappy and frustrated television critics on the other.

To outsiders, the issue -- a seemingly arcane rule change designed to improve the Emmy chances of oft-overlooked shows such as the WB's "Gilmore Girls" -- might appear to be just another tempest in a Hollywood awards-show teapot. (Remember the howls over Oscar screeners a couple of seasons back?) But for some fans, critics, television executives and members of the creative community, it's nothing short of butterfly ballots in Florida.

And it's even possible that the rhetorical slugfest will turn into a ratings disappointment when the show airs; some insiders predict that because many fan favorites were passed over in the new nomination process, the ceremony could take a major viewership hit when it is broadcast Aug. 27 on NBC.

At least one network is dead set on payback: ABC, which is smarting that many of its most popular shows were overlooked in the marquee categories, announced late Friday that it would broadcast the blockbuster film "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" to go head to head with the Emmys.

When asked about ABC's decision and what it could mean for the Emmys audience and NBC's ratings, Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal Television Group, said: "It's more formidable competition, and it's unfortunate."

ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson has been one of the most vocal critics of the new Emmy procedures, telling reporters last week that the lack of major nominations for "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" -- both big winners last year -- proved that the system this year was flawed.

But others, including NBC's "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf, have defended the academy, calling McPherson's claims misguided. And even one blue-ribbon panelist critical of the new rules said the networks' shortfall could be attributed to producers submitting confusing or subpar episodes for consideration, not the academy.

The roughly 13,000 members of the academy simply do not have time to watch every single show, so selecting the nominees has always been a tricky proposition, and the system has been tinkered with over the years.

Most recently, members voted and ranked candidates from their peer groups, and the top five vote-getters made the ballot. But there were persistent questions, particularly when the same shows seemed to show up year after year. Were staid academy members voting only for their tried-and-true favorites?

So this year, the academy tried something different in the best comedy, drama, actor/actress and variety, music or comedy series categories. The voting members narrowed their selections down to 10 candidates in the variety, drama and comedy programs category, and to 15 in the performance categories (outstanding lead actor in a comedy, outstanding guest actress in a drama etc.) Then, a smaller group of panelists watched a submitted sample of a candidates' work and helped winnow the list down to the names and series that appear on the ballots.

The academy hoped that this approach would help balance out members who shun new shows as well as raise the profile of oft-neglected shows. Instead, critics said, ABC's "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost" lost out, as did HBO's "Entourage" and "Big Love," along with niche favorites such as "Gilmore Girls" and FX's "The Shield" and Sci-Fi's "Battlestar Galactica."

Those involved in the nomination process were asked to keep details confidential, so the four panelists and one former member of the academy interviewed by The Times spoke on the condition of anonymity. One panelist said: "There were great shows and great people who didn't get recognized. I wish there was a way we could pull it all back and start over. I think they've made a blunder this year and could figure out a way to make it work next year."

Echoed another veteran member, a mid-rank studio executive who served on two of the blue-ribbon panels last month: "It felt like pilot testing" -- in which marketers ask sample audiences for general opinions of new shows -- and not a process by which the industry tries to recognize the talent within its ranks.

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