Emmy rerun in works?

Will there be a three-peat in the major category nominations for the 49th annual Primetime Emmy Awards? And if there is, will the viewing audience be able to stop yawning long enough to make it through the Sept. 14 CBS telecast?

These are a couple of the key questions heading into Thursday’s early morning (5:38 and 30 seconds, ayem, on the dot) announcement of the Emmy noms, which could well prove to be another exercise in repetition.

If “NYPD Blue,” “Chicago Hope,” “ER,” “Law & Order” and “The X-Files” are nominated for top drama, and “Frasier,” “Friends,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Mad About You” and “Seinfeld” are the nominees for outstanding comedy, it will be the third straight year that those shows have filled the categories.

It’s also possible that there will be three-peats among four of the five nominees for lead actor in both a comedy and drama series. And while cable is expected to have another banner nominations year — particularly in the movie and miniseries categories — there is a certain sameness that has crept into the process and lent the Primetime Emmys something of a ho-hum air.

“I can certainly see that, from a viewer’s point of view, it’s dull,” said Steven Bochco, who has won cart loads of Emmys for “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.”

“But I promise you that for the people who toil on all of these series, they appreciate the recognition, and it never gets old. If you don’t think that every producer, including your’s truly, is disappointed when he doesn’t win, you’re mistaken. It still means something.”

However, it seems that Emmy nominations, and even Emmy wins, don’t carry the same weight and cache they once did. And it remains unclear just what Emmy recognition means to a show when renewal time rolls around.

Post-Emmy status quo

Bochco doesn’t believe that winning the drama series Emmy two years in a row bought “Picket Fences” “even a single additional viewer. It’s hard to say how it impacted the people who run CBS.” The Emmys did not, however, render the show indispensable, he added.

Yet there have been instances in which Emmys (both nominations and wins) have clearly helped breathe new life into shows lingering between life and death.

NBC surely would not have renewed “Hill Street Blues” after its first abysmally rated season in 1981 if the show had not enjoyed the kind of critical acclaim and Emmy recognition it received, Bochco said.

“Winning eight Emmys that first season really validated us,” he said.

Earning four Emmy nominations in 1983 likewise didn’t hurt when CBS opted to bring “Cagney & Lacey” back from the dead after it had been canceled the previous spring. The four nods turned out to be 80% of CBS’ total of five nominations. “Cagney” would win one: To Tyne Daly for top dramatic actress.

“CBS had a fantasy that we would win best drama series and I would stand up there onstage holding my Emmy aloft and announcing that the show was returning to the air,” recalled Barney Rosenzweig, the show’s creator and executive producer.

“We didn’t win, but they put us back on, anyway. The avalanche of mail from viewers changed their mind, but the Emmy nominations obviously didn’t hurt.”

They also didn’t hurt ABC’s “China Beach” back in 1990 and ’91, when the drama’s ratings lagged, said John Wells, one of that show’s executive producers and now exec producer of “ER” — last year’s Emmy winner for drama series.

“I think Emmy recognition makes a big difference if your show is on the cusp, as ‘China Beach’ was,” Wells said.

“That Emmy affirmation was absolutely essential to ‘China Beach’ staying on the air, no question. We were never a breakout success, so the Emmys were instrumental in stoking the network’s enthusiasm to continue taking a chance on us.”

The shows nominated in the top categories over the past few years haven’t needed a similar Emmy push to remain on the air, as Bochco sees it.

“There isn’t a single show on the drama list that is going to be enhanced by either an Emmy nomination or a win,” Bochco said. “You can put ‘Homicide: (Life On the Street)’ on that list, too, and it wouldn’t be impacted one way or the other, either.”

Yet a “Homicide” nomination for outstanding drama would at least provide an element of contrast to an event that has become bogged down in predictability.

New edge lost

Bochco believes the Emmys haven’t been quite the same since the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences eliminated the outstanding new show category from the list. “I think it always gave an air of excitement to the proceedings,” he said.

Instead, Bochco added, “It’s been a long time since winning an Emmy has really focused an audience’s attention on a show it was otherwise not paying attention to. The last time that happened was with ‘Hill Street Blues.’ ”

A few such shows could break through with nominations in major categories this year when the candidates are unveiled Thursday at the TV Academy in North Hollywood. Among them are the ABC drama “The Practice” from producer David E. Kelley and the NBC comedy “3rd Rock From the Sun.” Fox’s “Party of Five” is another possibility.

If none of those make the top comedy and drama series fields, it may indeed be three-peat time.

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