'Sopranos' vs. 'West Wing,' take two

With 22 nominations, this should be the year HBO’s “The Sopranos” sweeps the Prime Time Emmy Awards.

The momentum, after all, is already in place. Coming off a strong third season, the mob drama rode a wave of critical acclaim and gushing media coverage in recent months that (at times) bordered on hysteria.

“Sopranos” frenzy hit an all-time high earlier this spring, when Newsweek featured the show on its cover with the headline, “Why ‘The Sopranos’ Has the Rest of TV Running for Its Life.”

But before you enter any Emmy office pool, fuggedabout conventional wisdom: “Sopranos” is no shoo-in to dominate this year’s trophy tally.

Bada-what?

Call it HBO’s Emmy conundrum. While the pay cabler has come to dominate the award’s made-for-TV movie category in recent years, HBO still comes up nearly empty on the series side.

While the channel has landed its share of noms, trophies have been much more elusive. Last year, for example, “Sopranos” picked up 18 noms – tied with NBC’s “The West Wing.” But when all was said and televised, “Sopranos” came up nearly empty – save for an Emmy for James Gandolfini (best actor in a drama). “West Wing,” in comparison, won nine, including drama.

Other HBO skeins, from “The Larry Sanders Show” to “Sex and the City,” have also come up empty through the years.

Even HBO original programming prexy Chris Albrecht admits that shows like “Sopranos” still can’t get arrested come Emmy night.

“TV Academy members don’t necessarily subscribe to HBO, whereas everyone has NBC,” Albrecht says. “Our stuff also tends to be serialized. Sometimes when they’re (watching the videos to vote), the episodes they’re sent may be the only ones they’ve seen. Anything can happen when watching the tapes at home. We have a much broader base of support in the nominations.”

Albrecht also acknowledges that Emmy voters – particularly older Academy of Television Arts & Sciences members – may harbor certain content objections.

“They won’t vote for a gangster who says fuck or a 35-year-old girl who talks about sex,” Albrecht says.

But this year may be different. HBO has widened the kudos gap with the broadcast webs, snagging a whopping 94 Prime Time Emmy noms – including “Sopranos'” series-best 22. It’s the best-ever showing for HBO (or any cabler, for that matter), and the first time a broadcast network hasn’t garnered the most mentions.

HBO previously hit a high of 90 in 1997, and at first took top honors. But NBC eked out a narrow victory a few weeks later when last-minute additional noms pushed it to 92. This time around, the pay cabler clearly dominates heading into the Sept. 16 ceremony.

“We’ve created an atmosphere where everyone is encouraged to do their best work,” Albrecht says. “We’ve done progressively better each year and that’s what I’m proud of.”

While HBO will probably be popping the champagne next month, there’s no celebration at the WB weblet, which was completely shut out this year.

The snub came despite an extensive “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” campaign by Twentieth Century Fox TV(and even the show’s fans), as well as a push by Warner Bros. Television to get the word out about those “Gilmore Girls.”

Yet, despite 83 possible categories – and 416 separate nominations – the WB came up empty on all fronts. Frog execs resurrected the age-old complaint that the TV Acad hasn’t kept pace with edgy, younger fare.

“If ‘Catcher in the Rye’ were released today, Academy members would look at the book and consider it a dime-store paperback,” rails WB Entertainment prexy Jordan Levin. “The Academy is totally out of step with the viewing public.”

Concerns over Emmy voting are as old as the Academy itself, of course. The org revised its voting methodology last year to combat some of that criticism, mostly to positive reviews.

Under the new rule, Academy members view series, acting, directing and writing nominees on homevideo. In the past, a blue-ribbon panel of (mostly older) voters chose those category winners at the Beverly Hilton Hotel during a weekend in August.

The Academy also expanded its coverage of nonfiction shows this year after CBS execs, worried that their “Survivor” juggernaut wouldn’t get its due, lobbied hard for a new reality category.

The org voted to create two new awards: a “nonfiction programming (reality)” trophy for series that don’t reward contestants; and a “nonfiction programming (special class)” trophy for reality skeins with gameshow, prize or contest elements (such as “Survivor”).

“Survivor” ended up with five noms overall, including the above mentioned category. Among freshman skeins, “Survivor” landed the most noms – a not-so-surprising feat, given the lack of any breakout new series (save, perhaps, “JAG”) this past season.

A dearth of new hit series may also be why the drama and comedy nominations are virtually unchanged from last year.

The drama noms – “ER,” “Law & Order,” “The Practice,” “The Sopranos” and “The West Wing” all return from 2000.

Among the comedy picks, “Malcolm in the Middle” is the only newcomer to a pack that otherwise includes returning laffer nominees “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Frasier,” “Sex and the City” and “Will & Grace.”

On the longform side, cable continued to dominate – with the exception of ABC’s miniseries “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows,” which picked up a stunning 13 noms, and the net’s “Anne Frank.”

Otherwise, it was a non-broadcast affair: The odds are stacked in HBO’s favor in the made-for-TV movie side. Four of the category’s five noms went to the cabler (the fifth went to Showtime).

The Emmy nominations also continue to show some disconnect between viewers, critics and voters. Head-scratchers this year include the umpteenth best actor in a comedy nomination for “3rd Rock From the Sun’s” John Lithgow, despite the show’s uneventful final season.

“3rd Rock” isn’t the only canceled series still landing noms, others include med drama “Gideon’s Crossing,” cop drama “Big Apple,” remade actioner “The Fugitive” and Bette Midler starrer “Bette.”

Also dearly departed but still earning mentions are “Xena: Warrior Princess” (which snagged the syndication world’s only nom) and “Norm.”

And in the most-bizarre nomination department, “Freaks and Geeks” scribe Paul Feig still has a chance to walk away with a trophy for the show – despite the fact that NBC canceled the much-loved but little-watched show two seasons ago. “Freaks” maintained eligibility because the Peacock burned off original episodes of the skein last summer, including the nominated seg, penned by Feig.

Meanwhile, if the Emmy nominations are any strong gauge of what’s buzzworthy in primetime, then many of the hits from last decade are definitely showing their age.

“NYPD Blue,” for example, which holds the all-time single-year record for most noms (27, in its inaugural 1993-94 season), landed just one mention.

“The X-Files,” which peaked in 1998 with 16 noms, is down to just two. And “ER,” which hit 23 nominations in its first year, took just seven.

With those shows winding down, and with “The Sopranos” apparently debuting too late next season to be eligible for the 2002 contest, this year’s “Sopranos”-“West Wing” smackdown may be the last great Emmy battle for some time to come.

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