TV nods unleash the underdogs

The theory goes that people attend car races to see the accidents and crack-ups. A similar theory holds for people watching awards shows: the surprises, the shocks, the upsets, anything to prove the pundits wrong and make the underdog happy.

In recent years at least, no awards fete matches the Golden Globes’ television awards for sheer surprise. For while there are similar voting patterns shared by the TV Academy’s Emmys and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.’s Globes nods, the ways in which Globes voting can veer from Emmy trends is striking, and almost a mark of pride for HFPA members.

Those members have been recently under a cloud of contention, partly due to a Washington Post investigative story on the organization’s voters and voting practices and partly due to an upstart foreign press group, the Intl. Press Academy, formed by disgruntled ex-HFPA members.

As one Los Angeles-based television industry observer says, “The suspicion has been around forever in the industry about (HFPA) that voters can be bought off with the best fruit baskets.” When (Fox’s) “Party of Five” won the drama series award last year, for example, there was grumbling from other studios that Fox had greased the voters better.

HFPA members vehemently deny these oft-repeated accusations of voting corruption, and indeed point to the “Party of Five” award as a sign of their group’s variance from Emmy voting habits. “A lot of people were shocked about the ‘Party of Five’ award, but we felt that its quality and emotional content were strong, and that it deserved to be acknowledged because a lot of people hadn’t discovered it,” says HFPA’s TV committee head Jenny Cooney. “As a group, we like to find shows that may not always be the obvious choice, and those are often new shows.”

In the past three years, the drama series Globe has gone to new and/or cult shows which veered from the main-stream: In 1993, it was Steven Bochco’s then-controversial “NYPD Blue;” in 1994, it was the burgeoning but not-yet-phenomenal “The X-Files;” and last year — a consecutive win for Fox — “Party of Five.”

The comedy category hasn’t been quite as dramatically different, but has still tended toward what was fresh: for ’93, “Seinfeld;” for ’94, a tie between “Frasier” and “Mad About You;” for ’95, ”Cybill.”

Sprinkled throughout the 1996 nominees are choices perhaps only the Globes could have managed; trash pop faves like Heather Locklear (“Melrose Place”) for lead actress in a drama series; underdog first-timers like Brooke Shields (“Suddenly Susan”) for lead actress in a comedy and Lance Henriksen (“Millennium”) for lead actor in a drama; two of five drama series picks going to Fox shows (“The X-Files,” “Party of Five”); and the monopoly of cable channels HBO and Showtime in the prestigious mini-series or motion pictures made-for-TV category.

“The Globes,” notes Entertainment Weekly television critic Ken Tucker, “seem to reward shows that can become TV phenomena faster than the Emmys do, which comes I think from the necessity of journalists being aware of the TV zeitgeist. Any award, say, to “The X-Files” in only its second season, is really a rebuke to the Emmys and the TV Academy’s slowness to be on the uptake of what’s going on.”

Both longtime Emmys observer and author Thomas O’Neil and Los Angeles Times television reporter Brian Lowry note the contrast between the conservative, older demographic of TV Academy voters and an HFPA voting trend which tends to skew younger. O’Neil estimates that the Academy median voting age is “around 50.” Since the HFPA doesn’t release information on the ages of individual voting members (though the Post’s Sharon Waxman reports that two active members are “in their nineties”), O’Neil offers no comparable demographic for the press group. “They tend to vote young,” he observes, citing the drama actress award in 1994 for Claire Danes in the critically lauded, low-rated ”My So-Called Life.”

Youth must be served, but the dubious side of this as O’Neil sees it is the Globes’ tendency “to go for the hip, cool trend. The Globes may have an off-base bias to hipness, and the Emmys have an off-base bias to the mainstream, established, industry-approved show.

A great example was last year, when the drama actor award went to Jimmy Smits rather than Dennis Franz (last year’s Emmy winner). And in past years, Globes have been given to Jerry Seinfeld, and to Don Johnson when he was the flavor of the year on “Miami Vice.”

This trendiness has much to do with the hot topics editors back home want their Hollywood-based scribes to report; thus, what the foreign press writes about has an inevitable spillover into whom they deem Globe-worthy. “Readers back home,” says O’Neil, “care a lot more about Jane Seymour, who won the Globe last year for ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman’, than they do about Kathy Baker. That skews the (HFPA) voting.”

It is also no accident, observers say, that Globe winners like “The X-Files” and “Twin Peaks” have been hot commodities abroad, highlighting perhaps part of a cultural difference between a group of foreign journalists and an industry association of largely American craftspeople and artists. “A lot of members have European sensibilities,” says Cooney, “so ‘ER’ (a perennial Globe loser) may strike them as too fast and shallow, as opposed to a slower-moving show like ‘Picket Fences’ or ‘Northern Exposure’ (both past Globe winners).”

HFPA President Philip Berk, though, feels “it’s presumptuous for me to say that the voting reflects the tastes of foreign countries, since we represent nations on many continents, from Bangladesh to Lithuania to South Africa. The voting is, in fact, very individual.”

Individual and, inevitably perhaps for any journalists’ voting organization, erratic. While the Emmy voting process is vetted through a complex, controlled system of viewing committees that review episodes and work submitted by artists, craftspeople and producers, Cooney’s TV committee in the HFPA works to “alert other members” to promising work, and can only hope that members see enough of the year’s television to give an informed vote.

Unexpectedly, reports O’Neil, it is the Emmys, and not the Globes, that tend to coincide year in and year out with the picks of the TV Critics Association (TVCA): “You might think that two press groups would tend to agree, but that isn’t the case. In recent years, the TVCA agrees with the Emmys about 60% of the time, and with the Globes only 30-40%.”

And, for one last word on the heated topic of HFPA voting corruption, NBC, whose estimated $700,000 broadcast fee for the annual awards provides HFPA with a large share of its funding, has had far more losers than winners on Globes night. Last year, “Frasier’s” Kelsey Grammer was the only winner from the NBC stable.

If HFPA were truly corrupt, the logic runs, NBC would clean up every year. “On the other hand,” an observer notes, “the group may go out of its way to avoid that impression, and vote against NBC.”

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