Acad extends process for major categories, creative kudos

Forget “The West Wing” and “Will & Grace,” the real winner at last year’s Emmy Awards was the Academy of Television Arts and Science’s experiment in at-home voting.

The most immediate and dramatic result of letting members judge shows via videotapes at home was the huge jump in those casting votes. Last year nearly 4,000 members participated in the process, up from a maximum of 1,500 in prior years, says Meryl Marshall-Daniels, CEO and chairwoman of the Academy.

The result was surprise winners such as “Will & Grace,” “The West Wing,” Sela Ward and Patricia Heaton, choices that quieted criticism that the ATAS was too conservative and failed to honor cutting-edge material.

“There was a very good sense … at the primetime awards telecast that the room felt invested in the outcome and agreed with the outcome,” says Marshall-Daniels. “In the past, people at the telecast felt that other people made the decision.”

The Acad decided in October to extend the at-home voting for major categories and in January expanded it to include 46 of the 57 creative awards. Technical categories whose members believed it important to maintain the controlled viewing of the previous system decided to stick with the original system. Marshall-Daniels says she hopes that at-home judging will be a near unanimous choice for next year’s awards.

“We saw a lot of underdogs come through on awards night,” says Emmy watcher and author Tom O’Neil. “That showed us that most of the voters were watching the tapes. The only alarming thing I saw from the outcome last year was we didn’t see any victories for non-HBO cable. Not one.”

Joyce Millman, Salon.com TV critic, thinks it’s too early to christen the home-viewing system a success.

“In the past, I’ve been really critical of the nominations. They’ve been amazingly homogenous, but last year was the first time that I thought the nominations were right on the mark, with the exception of the glaring omission of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ in the drama series category. Joss Whedon did get a writing nomination, but both the series and Sarah Michelle Gellar need to be taken more seriously by the voters,” Millman says.

The previous voting system was initiated by Rod Serling in the late 1960s. While the panels ensured all shows were seen by all the voters, fewer members were giving up a weekend to attend. Many felt the result was decisions made by a die-hard group that failed to represent the judgment of the whole Acad and honored the same performers and shows year after year.

From 1990-99, 18 women divvied up the 51 nominations for lead comedy actress with only four different winners. Helen Hunt and Candace Bergen each won four times. The lead comedy actor category was similar, with 51 nominations split among 15 actors; only five people won, with John Lithgow and Kelsey Grammer each winning three.

Outstanding comedy series also steered a predictable course, with five of the 16 nominated shows taking the honor. “Frasier” led the way, winning five consecutive Emmys on six nominations, while popular and critical favorite “Seinfeld” won once on seven nominations.

The drama categories are more diverse, with more shows competing. But again, repeat nominations and wins were common.

While at-home judging has been a success, Meryl-Daniels says there is no chance the experiment will extend to the nominations process because of the huge volume of shows on the air.

“We have to rely on people who have seen the programs through the year,” she says. “We are still operating under the same conflict of interest guidelines that have always applied. The only difference is the judging is at home.”

(Tom Hicks contributed to this story.)

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