Mad about who? Conservatism imperils Emmy

WHY DO EMMY VOTERS MOVE at such a glacier-like pace? That’s the question many showbizzers were asking themselves as they scattered from the Shrine Auditorium following Sunday night’s Emmycast.

With all due respect to the winners, some of this year’s picks were baffling, especially since there were three-peats and four-peats in some categories. Many observers likened it to the Grammy Awards farce in 1988 when the first-ever award in the hard rock/metal performance category went to none other than … Jethro Tull.

On Sunday, John Lithgow, Helen Hunt, David Hyde Pierce and Kirsten Johnston were singled out as the top comedy actors for their work in a season — by general critical consensus — that was hardly the strongest for “3rd Rock from the Sun,” “Mad About You” or “Frasier.” More importantly, it’s not as if their talents have been overlooked in past years by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

A COMMON REACTION HEARD at post-Emmy bashes and industry watercoolers Monday morning: “Enough already.” Even some of the winners seemed mortified by their repeat triumphs.

During his acceptance speech, Lithgow admitted only half-jokingly that he was “embarrassed” by his win. Dennis Franz, who won a fourth lead drama actor trophy for “NYPD Blue,” seemed equally puzzled backstage when he stressed that he sure “would’ve liked to have heard (fellow nominee) Jimmy Smits’ name called.”

Edie Falco’s richly deserved win for her role as the conflicted Mafia wife in “The Sopranos” finally broke the monotony. Yet few industry-ites buzzing around post-Emmy parties Sunday could explain the Acad’s refusal to hand its top drama series honor to the most warmly embraced TV series in recent memory — David Chase’s “The Sopranos.”

NBC Entertainment prexy Garth Ancier suggests the time has come to open up the voting process to all for a diversity of opinions.

“The major awards for shows and acting should be voted on by everyone in the Academy,” he told Daily Variety. “If they were … there would have been radically different results (Sunday). And the awards would at least be representative of what the entire academy thinks.”

ONE PLAUSIBLE (THOUGH FAR FROM satisfying) theory to explain the puzzling results of the 51st annual primetime Emmy derby: The acad is almost always slow to recognize frosh sensations. “ER” and “NYPD Blue” both failed to score best drama wins in their first years of eligibility, while “Ally McBeal” didn’t get the nod for best comedy until its sophomore season.

Some practitioners of the half-hour comedy form were just as upset about “Ally McBeal’s” win, a ground-breaking victory for hour-long dramedies. In reality, that quandary is probably less an Emmy voting issue than a philosophical debate among creatives on whether apples-to-apples judging can be done among submissions varied among 22- and 44-minute shows.

Another common complaint about the TV Acad’s membership is that it “skews older,” to use industry parlance, and therefore the voters tend to be more conservative in their selections, favoring the tried and true vs. the new and different. For yet another Grammy parallel, it was precisely that conservatism that drove NARAS to rewrite its Grammy voting rules four years ago.

Yet another gripe heard Monday among industry insiders depressed by this year’s kudocast is that “the Academy isn’t made up of people who are integrated into the business,” as one high-ranking exec put it. “Its membership reflects people who don’t have a stake in the health” of the television industry.

THESE CLAIMS ARE IMPOSSIBLE to quantify without facts and figures, or, for that matter, knowledge of who exactly makes up the blue-ribbon panels that judge most of the key Emmy categories.

But now that this year’s Emmy awards are history, the Acad has plenty of time for introspection before the 2000 Emmy nominations are unveiled. And at a time when TV Acad president Jim Chabin and chairman Meryl Marshall are very visibly trying to reinvigorate the institution, a thorough examination of Emmy voting procedures — perhaps even an initiative to address the ever-present cable vs. broadcast disparity complaints — would be a good place to start.

Since any such changes are likely to take years to implement, however, some thesps might consider following the lead of the ever-gracious Candice Bergen.

After several wins in best actress in a comedy for her role on “Murphy Brown,” Bergen simply decided one year that she’d been honored enough. She withdrew her name from contention, clearing the way for a younger, fast-rising actress to snag some much-deserved recognition.

The newcomer’s name? Helen Hunt.