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Tale of the tape

TV awards audition at-home judging

When “The Sopranos” lost out in last year’s Prime Time Emmy drama race to “The Practice,” a rumble could be heard throughout the land. And quite a few grumbles as well. It had less to do with the merits of “The Practice” — which in almost all quarters is considered a splendid show — and more to do with a belief that stodgy voters just didn’t get “The Sopranos.”

Partly because of that outcry, and also because of a general feeling that the voting process could use tweaking, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences embarked on a one-year experiment. Gone are the long summer weekends of intensive television watching by voters who are herded into hotel rooms and ballrooms to evaluate shows and performances. In their place: cassettes of every contending show mailed directly to voters, in the hopes that more of those eligible will participate in the process and thus produce a broader sampling of opinion.

“We did speak to a number of people after last year’s voting,” says Meryl Marshall, chairman of the board and CEO of ATAS. “If you were sitting in the room at the Emmys, you could see a large number of people in attendance who did not participate in the voting at the hotel.”

When asked if this change was done specifically to address last year’s snubbing of “Sopranos,” Marshall replies: “I don’t think so, although there were several categories where people in the room (at the awards ceremony) reacted with surprise, and ‘The Sopranos’ was one of them.

“If you participated in the judging, you would understand that what you are thinking going into a room (in order to judge a show under the old panel system) is not necessarily what you decided when you actually watch it.”

This experiment is not completely new. Two years ago, Marshall explains, the same change to videocassettes was made for voting on longform nominations. Those miniseries and movies of the week entries run two hours or more apiece, seeming to deter voters who didn’t have the time.

“There is a belief in the MOW community that the change shifted dramatically in terms of bringing in outstanding people to vote, and the selections were well respected,” Marshall says. “We made the change (involving all shows) in part based on the effectiveness of that change, and the belief that there were a lot more qualified people who would participate if they could watch at home.”

Mark Itkin, senior vice president at the William Morris Agency, chaired the special committee that took over six months to determine how the voting procedure could be improved. He had performed the same duty previously with longform and thus came to understand just how many disgruntled TV fans, as well as people on the executive and creative sides of the industry, were clamoring for a change.

“It’s going to make the voting process more accessible,” Itkin notes. “It’s going to allow for a larger voting base. Two days in the middle of August, it’s a lot to expect people to sit in hotel rooms when many people in the business are on vacation or on hiatus. And there are a lot of high-profile people in the TV Academy — producers, directors — who aren’t comfortable in a public situation and therefore never show up.”

Even though this is being approached as a one-year test, the change more than likely is here to stay. But how will those who oversee the process determine that?

“If we increase the percentage of the members of the Academy who vote,” Itkin explains, “we’ve at least allowed more people to speak up and vote. If the winners are the same, that’s wonderful. The point is to get more people involved. We think it will work out.”

Says Marshall: “The first challenge is: Are we getting the right people judging? Are we getting an expanded community of qualified judges? That’ll be the first gauge. It will be valuable to know they participated.”

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