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Get Ready To Grumble

Emmy entrants get 250 words to make their case. But expect more lengthy discourse after the fact.


DID the Emmy choices make you barking mad last year? Were you among the legions who fumed that "Lost" wasn't even nominated for best drama? Who thought the TV academy voters needed urgent medical attention for ignoring Hugh Laurie of "House"? Who were ready to whack someone over the snub of "The Sopranos" star James Gandolfini?

Well, guess what? You can get ready to burn all over again.

Mindful of last year's uproar from fans and critics, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has once again tweaked its procedures governing the Emmy voting process. Earlier this year, officials instituted a number of changes, most notably a new provision giving producers a chance to explain their show submissions in 250-word essays. The thinking is that the essays will help orient voters who may not be familiar with the ins and outs of a series they're considering. But here's a news flash: Many industry veterans don't expect the changes to make a lot of difference.

"Lately, it seems that each year there's a set of 'new rules,' " said Shari Anne Brill, vice president at New York-based ad firm Carat USA.

Indeed, last year's controversies erupted after the TV academy changed its rule book to include "blue-ribbon panels" that would help choose winners. The results outraged many, including ABC Entertainment chief Stephen McPherson, who told reporters he wished officials would dump the panels and go "back to the old system."

That's probably not going to happen anytime soon. In trying to get its arms around a rapidly changing industry, the academy seems determined to keep futzing until it finds the elusive magic formula.

That's why producers now have homework in the form of those essays. Are they happy about this? No, they are not.

Carlton Cuse, executive producer of ABC's "Lost," said he would submit an essay but he doubts it'll do much to improve Emmy prospects for his complex, serialized desert-island thriller.

"I don't know how you can even begin to explain 'Lost' in 250 words or less," Cuse wrote me in an e-mail. "We're going to have to rely on the fact that members of the TV academy are TV watchers and hopefully will have seen other episodes of the show."

Of course, it's gotten exceedingly difficult for voters to watch even a few episodes from every single deserving series. These days, there are simply too many shows on too many cable and broadcast networks. That overabundance results in voting that strikes many as annoyingly change-averse -- and it also produces small but vocal fan bases who are flamboyantly loyal to niche shows.

As Brill put it, for Emmy voters "the whole issue boils down to a lack of familiarity with the content and, unfortunately, safe and familiar take precedence over new and different."

Picking the Emmys was far simpler 20 years ago, when there were just four broadcast networks and a smattering of cable outlets. Isolating the very best today requires both broad familiarity with programming on more than 100 channels as well as a nuanced understanding of sophisticated shows like "Lost" and "The Sopranos." That's a tall order, and it helps explain why the Emmy choices seem so screwy to people who watch the most TV -- hard-core fans and professional critics.

So when the Emmy nominations are announced, let the carping begin. And then get ready for more the morning after the ceremony.

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