Industry anticipates 'Men' to sweep

ARE ALL the ballots in? Good.

Because if “Mad Men” claims the Emmy for outstanding drama series on Sunday, as it should, it’s going to fundamentally alter these awards — not necessarily in a bad way, but in a “Things won’t be the same” way.

Even with the profile bump it received from its Golden Globe wins in January and haul of 16 Emmy bids as its second season began in July, the AMC series continues to average a mere 1.5 million viewers, putting it on the lower rungs of TV’s art-house tier.

So should the program follow the four tech and craft Emmys that it garnered at Saturday’s Creative Arts ceremony by being anointed outstanding drama, “Mad Men” would not only represent basic cable’s first honoree (after an “It’s just nice to be nominated” milestone shared with FX’s “Damages”) but by far the lowest-rated winner ever in the Emmys’ most prestigious and competitive category.

ASSUMING THAT HAPPENS, it’s easy to anticipate what follows.

On one hand, the often-beleaguered Academy of Television Arts & Sciences can pat itself on the back for getting one right, after years when third parties fumed about the awards trailing the critical mood. For whatever reason Emmy voters frequently seem a day late in recognizing breakthrough series, sometimes appearing to vote based more on reputation than merit.

Several historical factors suggest “Mad Men” could buck this trend. Perhaps foremost, it’s not just a period piece (a traditional Emmy favorite) but chronicles a time and place familiar to many academy members who came of age professionally in the 1960s — when most homes had only one grainy TV that received a mere handful of channels.

Bashers of left-leaning Hollywood might also detect a liberal undercurrent. Unlike conservatives who romanticize the past and decry fallout from the ‘60s counterculture movement, “Mad Men” gracefully reminds us that America’s good ol’ days weren’t always quite so good for women, ignored minorities, closeted gays or teetotalers, clashing with a mentality that hankers for simpler times when pregnant teenagers weren’t featured on magazine covers. (Oh, the girl’s a pro-life Republican? Hey, never mind!)

WHATEVER APPLAUSE ATAS reaps, however, promises to die down once the ratings dribble in. As the Oscars have discovered, bestowing the crown to little-seen movies tends to deflate tune-in, and while modestly rated shows have triumphed before (think “Picket Fences”), having millions of viewers respond to “And the Emmy goes to” with shrugs of “Mad who?” isn’t likely to help.

Never mind that the industry has created its own award-show surplus and that seeing favorite stars dressed to the nines is hardly a unique come-on anymore. The postmortem analysis will lead to hand-wringing, in turn triggering renewed pressure to squeeze the venerable Emmy statuette into high heels and a girdle.

Some of that has already transpired, as evidenced by some of the recent cosmetic touches (theater-in-the-round seating? Woo-hoo!) and this year’s introduction of an on-air category for reality TV hosts. Certain board members groaned about expanding the genre’s presence within the academy’s big night, holding their noses after it was impressed upon them that allocating popular shows like “American Idol,” “Survivor” and “Dancing With the Stars” more airtime was a necessary concession.

At some point, the Emmys and Oscars will have to embrace one of two courses: A) Accept that the world has changed and they can’t expect the audiences they once delivered; or B) Continue undergoing Twister-like contortions to become more TV-friendly — only to risk looking silly and desperate, pandering to a demo too busy text-messaging to care.

FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH, here’s a vote for the former. Few things can resist ratings erosion’s gravity — and the rare exceptions needn’t contend with MTV or broadcast critics mounting their own versions of the Olympics or Super Bowl.

The bottom line is the academy’s core mandate to honor genuine excellence remains a laudable ideal, even if rewarding the best comes with consequences — among them the potential for renewed whining by the broadcast networks about being ignored at a party they host.

So here’s hoping Emmy voters go mad for “Mad Men” — and that they retain their sanity during the inevitable Monday-morning quarterbacking if the ratings make them feel like taking a headlong, slow-motion plunge down the side of a building.

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