Rookies invade drama den

With many regulars lagging, newbies snap up noms

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When it comes to this year’s roster of drama nominees, Emmy voters didn’t just find the fountain of youth this year — they dove right in.

The natural aging of several former Emmy darlings, along with the ineligibility of voter fave “The Sopranos,” resulted in an avalanche of first-time nominees in categories that had grown predictable as a kudocast acceptance speech.

Titans who once dominated the voting — think David E. Kelley, John Wells, Steven Bochco — are largely sitting this year out, making room for a new breed of drama scribes, producers and thesps.

To be sure, laffer categories also welcomed some new blood, with Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” edging out vet nominee “Frasier.” And three of the five best comedy actor nominees — Bernie Mac, Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry — are Academy virgins.

But it’s in the one-hour arena that Emmy really kicked out the old to make room for the new.

A whopping 70% of the lead actor/actress nominees are new to Emmy competish; at least half of the supporting drama thesp players are also newbies. And three of the five best drama nominees — “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Six Feet Under” and “24” — have never been in competition before.

“I think we’re in the golden era of dramatic television,” said “CSI” creator Anthony Zuiker, whose CBS skein just passed “ER” to become the nation’s most-watched hour. “It’s the age of feature television.”

Zuiker says TV’s new breed of dramatists have become skilled in “making mini-movies every week, so when the audience turns on the TV, it feels like they’re watching a (fast-paced) movie.”

The migration of feature superstars like Jerry Bruckheimer (“CSI”) and Alan Ball (“American Beauty”) into TV land has also upped the quality quotient for the medium. But with more competish than ever, both broadcast and cable nets have also been making a concerted effort to break through the clutter with distinctive, often groundbreaking hours.

“We’ve got over 50 years of TV programming now,” Ball said. “People like to see something new or at least a new take on something familiar. The audience recognizes conventions; there’s nothing more irritating than to watch a TV show or movie, and 10 minutes into it know exactly where it’s going.”

Shawn Ryan, whose FX skein “The Shield” snagged noms for writing and acting, noted that in television, desperation often breeds inspiration– or at least a willingness to take chances.

“Most of the great TV shows in recent years have come from last-place networks or networks that needed to get attention,” he said, noting FX was just “one of hundreds of cable channels” before “The Shield” helped put it on the map.

Indeed, CBS took a chance on “CSI” in part because the Eye was looking to shed its image as the geezer net. Likewise, Fox took a gamble on real-time drama “24” at a time when the web ‘s established dramas were on their last legs.

Emmy voters haven’t always been willing to accept risky shows — and still exhibit some hesitation about going too far over the edge, as evidenced by the continued shunning of Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and HBO’s out-there prison serial “Oz.”

But the slew of innovative dramas from a multitude of networks has almost forced the Academy to take notice. What’s more, past powerhouses have simply slowed with age or else have been on so long that voters may have simply grown bored by the same old-same old — regardless of the quality of the show.

Latter theory may explain why voters virtually shut out “NYPD Blue,” which by most accounts had a particularly strong season last year.

“When a show’s been around that long, it doesn’t have buzz anymore,” one network exec said. “The buzz goes somewhere else.”

This year’s crop of new nominees also got a lucky break when HBO decided to push back the new season of “The Sopranos” to September, making the skein ineligible for this year’s awards. That allowed a number of actors and writers who might normally get shut out by the mob hit to have their work noticed.

Emmy watchers will no doubt be looking to see whether voters will flock back to the “Sopranos” next year — thus making this year’s infatuation with the new a brief fling rather than a lifelong romance.

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