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To the sophomores go the spoils

Voters take notice of shows that continue to hit stride in their second seasons

If you factor in the sophomore surprise factor, “The Sopranos” is a shoo-in for best drama series this year.

The sophomore surprise is a revengeful rebound by 2-year-old programs that finally win a drama or comedy series award after flunking out at the end of their freshman seasons.

Last year’s freshman was “The Sopranos,” which led the Emmy race with 16 noms, but then lost the drama series trophy to “The Practice.” Now that it’s in its second season (and has an even-higher early score with 18 noms), “Sopranos” could graduate to the winner’s circle easily if recent Emmy history repeats itself.

Remember when red-hot “NYPD Blue” scored a record 26 noms in its frosh year? “Picket Fences” ended up beating it in the drama series category in 1994.

One year later, “ER” sent the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ pulses racing as the hot new series and the drama entered the Emmy race with 23 noms, a tally second in Emmy history only to “NYPD Blue’s” bounty one year earlier. What happened? “Blue” finally copped the best drama badge.

Daily Variety observed in 1996: “Apparently, the TV Academy gets excited enough to shower new shows with nominations but needs a year or two to get comfortable with a series before designating it as best.”

But is the sophomore surprise real? Do hot new series really have to wait till their second year to prevail?

It depends the way you interpret the history books.

There have been quite a few sophomore winners this past decade. In addition to “NYPD Blue” and “ER,” all of the following skeins won a top series prize after losing out in their first seasons: “Northern Exposure,” “Murphy Brown,” “Seinfeld” and “Ally McBeal.” Meanwhile, only “Picket Fences,” “Frasier” and “The Practice” won in their first years during the same decade.

But look back over the 1980s and there are quite a few frosh who matriculated right away: “Hill Street Blues,” “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” “The Golden Girls,” “L.A. Law,” “thirtysomething” and “The Wonder Years.” The only sophomore who pulled off a surprise during that decade was “Cagney & Lacey.”

So if this phenomenon is real, it appears to be a ’90s thing. But the question now is whether it will continue into the new millennium?

This year it’s nearly impossible to predict the awards’ outcome because there’s a new voting system in the top 27 categories. In those heats, voters no longer have to attend judging panels; they’re permitted to watch the nominee’s videotapes at home before they ink their ballots.

This year’s “now” series is NBC’s “The West Wing” and may benefit from the new voting procedure. Its victory as best drama series would be ironic since Emmy’s controversial voting change was actually made because there was criticism aimed at the Academy last year when “Sopranos” lost out to “The Practice.”

But even if the presidential skein pulls rank and “Sopranos” loses again, the New Jersey mob boys would be smart to hang tough. “Barney Miller” never gave up hope and finally got the last laugh by winning best comedy series on its seventh try — just after going off the air in 1982.

In 1997, “Law & Order” finally won best drama series on its sixth attempt. This year, it’s up at bat for a ninth time and its fate could swing either way thanks to the new voting. That wild card means that there could be lots of surprises on awards night — sophomore or otherwise.

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