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Family fracas

'West Wing,' 'Sopranos' tilt offers high drama

This year’s Emmys competish is shaping up to be a referendum on family values.

In the race for best drama, the biggest buzz surrounds shows about the first family (NBC’s “The West Wing”) and a mob famiglia (HBO’s “The Sopranos.”) With 18 noms each, the two shows dominate the Emmys field — and the guessing game over who’ll win what.

Warner Bros. Television topper Peter Roth, whose studio produces “The West Wing,” says the 18 noms for the skein will help the show build a bigger fan base — particularly if those noms turn into wins.

“Creatively, (‘The West Wing’) had a banner year,” Roth says. “What we hope will happen now is that an even larger and more broad-based audience will find the show. It’s so deserving.”

On the comedy side, frequent fave “Frasier” is again a contender. This also could be the year “Friends” breaks through.

But if Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters decide it’s time to honor a younger comic skein, they’ll have to decide between the dysfunctional family on CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond” or the nontraditional broods at the center of NBC’s “Will & Grace” or HBO’s “Sex and the City.”

The biggest mystery this year, however, may not be who wins or loses — but how the game of voting plays out.

After years of critical sniping from industryites who believe Emmy voters are out of touch, the Acad has changed its rules to allow for at-home voting.

Under the new setup, voters will no longer gather in a dark hotel room for marathon screening sessions. Instead, ATAS members who agree to be judges will get videotapes of nominated programs sent to their homes or offices this month.

The Academy estimates it will be able to double the number of voters who participate. The unspoken hope is that nominees from buzzed-about shows such as “The Sopranos” or “The West Wing” won’t be passed over in favor of perennial winners — a common occurrence at past ceremonies.

Emmy watchers are particularly keen to see how the rule change impacts the cable network rivalry, which is no longer limited to the movies and minis categories.

While HBO is no stranger to the series competish — “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” have both been nominated before, and “The Larry Sanders Show” also racked up noms while it was on the air, winning three — the pay cabler seems poised to break through with some serious victories.

On the drama front, “The Sopranos” was snubbed last year, but as a sophomore, the mob drama could finally prove to be a hit with the Academy, particularly since its main rival, “The West Wing,” will have to deal with the reality that few shows are winners in their first year out, especially dramas over the past few seasons. (“The Practice,” winning on its first ballot in 1998, is the one exception.)

The wild cards: David E. Kelley’s “The Practice” and Dick Wolf’s “Law & Order.” Former skein took home the statuette a year ago and once again had a strong season creatively. The latter series last won the category in 1997 and can never be discounted.

Meanwhile, HBO’s comedy contender, “Sex and the City,” experienced a big surge this year — jumping from two noms to nine. Its racy plotlines may have turned off conservative voting panels last year; the expanded home-viewing process could work in its favor.

The longform races promise a more classic network vs. cable showdown.

Cable (and PBS) dominated the categories during most of the 1990s, forcing free-to-air execs to greenlight more ambitious, high-quality projects. The network efforts could pay off on Emmy night.

Among the cable contenders is HBO’s “The Corner,” an ambitious look at inner-city life that won raves from critics. Among the broadcasters, ABC has fielded a Robert Halmi special-effects epic (“Arabian Nights”) and Storyline Entertainment’s darker “The Beach Boys: An American Family.”

In the telepic race, Storyline’s production of the family-friendly “Annie,” which has 12 noms, is competing in a category often dominated by cable competish (such as this year’s HBO triple threat of “RKO 281,” “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” and “If These Walls Could Talk 2”). The fifth entry is ABC’s “Tuesdays With Morrie.”

Storyline’s Craig Zadan, an exec producer on both “Annie” and “The Beach Boys,” admits that “cable has always been fearless in its approach to programming. … They don’t have the same restrictions that the networks sometimes must adhere to.” What’s more, the hardest thing to deal with is the considerably higher budgets of cable films vs. the smaller license fees and deficits for the network movies.

“But in the end, ingenuity, risk and quality will always triumph,” he says.

Overall, network and studio projects make up the bulk of this year’s Emmy crop.

NBC was the clear-cut Emmy nom leader, snagging a total of 97 noms to HBO’s 86. ABC finished third in the nom tally with 64, followed by CBS (41), Fox (26), PBS (12), Showtime (11) and TNT (10). UPN snagged seven noms (all for “Star Trek: Voyager”), while the WB racked up five.

Among suppliers, Warner Bros. Television led all studios with 43 noms spread over six series and one special. Twentieth Century Fox TV had 33 noms divided among 11 of its skeins. The Paramount Television Group tallied 22 noms.

NBC West Coast topper Scott Sassa says his network’s repeat performance as the most-nominated web serves as “a wonderful testament to the quality on this network.” He’s equally upbeat about the overall showing of the big six nets.

“At a time when new cable programming services are starting up practically every week, TV viewers and TV Academy members alike still turn to the quality and breadth of traditional over-the-air broadcast network television,” Sassa says. “The seven broadcast networks make up approximately 15% of the viewing choices in most communities but even with so many cable options, broadcast networks continue to attract more than 50% of the overall audience.

“Emmy voters have demonstrated that they are no different. They have awarded 239 Emmy nominations to network programs and only 153 to the combined cable fare.”

Another strong performance of the past season was turned in by the casting folks over at “The Practice.” The legal skein snagged three of five guest actor noms and two of the best actress noms.

Marlee Matlin, nominated for a guest turn on the skein, would undoubtedly love to make room on her mantel for an Emmy, which would go nicely with her 1986 Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God.”

She says, “It’s interesting to think that more people probably saw my performance in ‘The Practice’ than all the people who saw my performance in ‘Children of a Lesser God,’ when it first came out. Wow.”

— Michael Schneider contributed to this report.

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