Fresh faces get lift from rule changes

Army of newcomers grab trophies

What a difference a rule change makes.

A year ago, Emmy critics were carping loudly about how the same old faces seemed to win year in, year out-while bold new voices got shut out.

So the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences decided to tweak the process, allowing members to watch tapes of nominated programs and vote from the comfort of their homes. The more people who voted, the thinking went, the more democratic the process.

There’s no scientific way to know for sure, but if the Academy was hoping to shake things up, the rule change worked.

Sunday night saw a flood of fresh faces accepting statuettes, led by the army of newcomers from “The West Wing,” “Will & Grace” and “Malcolm in the Middle.”

Todd Holland, who snagged an award for directing “Malcolm,” said he’s convinced the new Emmy rules allowing at-home voting helped secure his victory.

“That was the wild card,” he said. “You have people as busy as I am (who were now able) to agree to be a judge. It allows a whole new realm of people to participate.”

Under the old system, Academy members needed to give up an entire weekend to sit in a dark hotel room and screen episodes of nominated programs. Critics argued that set-up resulted in a disproportionate number of older voters with plenty of time on their hands voting for familiar names and faces. Opening up the process to at-home voting would let younger, busier Academy members have a say.

It’s impossible to know how the voting would have gone under the old rules, but Sunday’s dramatic results make a strong case that the new rules had an impact:

  • There were virtually no repeat winners in any of the major categories. Emmy faves such as David E. Kelley, John Lithgow, Dennis Franz and David Hyde Pierce went home empty-handed.

  • Winners from shows such as “Will & Grace” and “The West Wing” had never so much as been nominated before. In the past, nominees often had to wait a year or two before snagging statuettes.

  • While “The West Wing’s” record showing isn’t too surprising — the show is a classic Emmy-ready drama if ever there was one — it’s hard to imagine the old Emmy guard voting an often-edgy show like “Will & Grace” best comedy. Eddie Izzard’s triumph in the variety category also spoke to Emmy’s new populist face.

Not surprisingly, most winners seemed happy about the new voting procedures.

“Will & Grace” exec producer David Kohan said at-home voting “clearly” made a difference in his show’s strong performance.

“Everybody Loves Raymond” star Patricia Heaton, who finally took home a statuette for best actress in a comedy, argued the old rules limited the pool of potential voters.

“It’s difficult to get people to go to a hotel and vote for something,” she said.

Heaton didn’t buy the complaint of those critics who believed the new rules would result in numerous Academy members voting for programs they hadn’t seen.

“I think there’s a lot of integrity among the artists and creative people,” she said. “Anyone who took tapes home, I’m sure they watched them.”

Academy chair Meryl Marshall said she was “encouraged” by the results of this year’s rule changes.

“There have been some breakthrough recipients tonight, and I’m very pleased,” she said on Sunday.

Marshall said more than 3,000 Academy members were sent ballots to vote in major categories; more than 2,500 responded. The latter figure is a significant increase over the number of people who attended the weekend screenings last year.

Marshall believes that voters took the process seriously, since a good number of people did not return ballots — perhaps not wanting to cast votes if they hadn’t had time to watch screening tapes.

This year’s at-home voting process was labeled an experiment when it was announced. Marshall said that “overall response has been affirmative,” but the Academy’s board of governors won’t decided whether to make the new rules permanent until its next meeting, at the earliest.

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