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Writing categories perplex Emmys

Org pressed to nominate shows, not individuals

Despite the abundance of top-notch series on television, two of them — “30 Rock” and “Mad Men” — claimed 80 percent of episodic Emmy writing nominations last year.

That scenario — with both shows gaudily grabbing four of five respective bids in its category, as well as a pair each in 2008 — prompted a proposal within the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which hands out the awards, to alter the rules. Because most TV episodes bear the stamp of multiple writers, some argued it would make more sense for nominations to reflect that by naming programs as opposed to individuals, thus spreading the wealth among more shows.

Despite some support within the academy, the suggestion to amend the writing format didn’t prevail. Still, given the wealth of legitimate contenders and the nature of the process, it’s a question that merits further discussion.

The case for nominating programs as opposed to single episodes goes as follows: Comedies are generally gang-written. Moreover, in both comedy and drama, showrunners regularly put their stamp on every episode, often significantly rewriting them, which can make sorting out actual authorship complicated.

In the case of “Mad Men,” series creator Matthew Weiner receives writing credit, shared or otherwise, on almost every episode, as Aaron Sorkin did during “The West Wing” — another perennial Emmy writing nominee in its day.

For everyone but the chosen series, moreover, there’s really no nice way of saying what results like last year’s imply: The fourth-best episode of “Mad Men” is more deserving than the best of “Breaking Bad,” “Damages” or “Big Love,” to name a few.

The Writers Guild of America — whose ceremony, obviously, is devoted exclusively to writers — has the luxury of offering an overall series nomination in addition to a category for individual episodes and another for new programs.

Finally, those who advocated the change felt it would be better to provide five programs and their writing staffs reason to celebrate — especially when the explosion of cable fare has yielded such an embarrassment of riches in terms of quality writing, particularly on the drama front.

John Leverence, the academy’s senior VP for awards, acknowledged that the “gang entry” concept “kind of makes reference to the reality of the writers room” — which perhaps appropriately, he added, is illustrated in the sequences involving the writers for “30 Rock’s” show-within-the-show.

There is precedent for such a switch.

Back in the early 1980s, the Canadian sketch show “SCTV” nabbed all five writing nominations in the variety, music or comedy category. In response, the academy’s board subsequently voted to honor the staffs collectively — paving the way for those amusing montages “The Daily Show” and “Late Show With David Letterman” assemble to rattle off the names of their scribes.

All told, then, it’s not an absurd leap to contemplate flipping the current equation, recognizing that episodic TV writing is frequently more a team effort than an individual exercise. But for now, it’s unlikely to happen.

Sensitivity about tinkering with the writing Emmy was doubtless heightened by last year’s flirtation with “time-shifting” various awards in an effort to streamline the ceremony, which aggravated the talent guilds. And while a potential compromise would be to split the drama and comedy awards between best show and top episode as the WGA does, insiders see little appetite to add more categories. Given existing concerns about a surplus of awards, there’s no way both would be showcased during the main telecast.

The status quo, in other words, seems destined to persist, leaving the possibility Emmy voters will again shower multiple nominations on a few favored programs — which could leave sitcom writers caught between a “Rock” and a “Rock,” and drama a “Mad,” “Mad,” “Mad,” “Mad” world.

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