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Freshman class holds up

But new voting system might end trend of first-timers' success

Jennifer Aniston should find the upcoming Emmy race especially friendly. Ditto for other first-time nominees Eric McCormack, Debra Messing and Sean Hayes of “Will & Grace,” and Jane Kaczmarek of “Malcolm in the Middle.”

The reason: The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ freshman class has always had an excellent chance at being recognized with an Emmy, despite being new to the game.

First-time triumphs

Over the past two decades, all of the following skeins won a top series prize at the end of their first seasons: “Hill Street Blues,” “Cheers,” “The Cosby Show,” “The Golden Girls,” “L.A. Law,” “The Wonder Years,” “thirtysomething,” “Picket Fences,” “Frasier” and “The Practice.” Most of those shows remained Emmy faves, picking up subsequent trophies.

Other series had to wait until their second seasons to take a top prize (“NYPD Blue,” “ER”) or, worse, their sixth nom (“Law & Order”).

Among thesps, Andre Braugher looked like he couldn’t get arrested at the Emmys during the late 1990s when he was lavished with awards from the Television Critics Assn. But then, when he finally threw in his badge on “Homicide: Life on the Street” in 1998, Braugher struck gold on his third Emmy dig.

On balance, however, the Emmy has extended an especially warm welcome to its freshman class.

Consider last year’s big award tests. There were 16 frosh thesps among the 40 nominees in the lead and supporting races for comedy and drama series.

Three rookies won eight of those match-ups — all on the drama series side: lead actress Edie Falco (“The Sopranos”), supporting actor Michael Badalucco (“The Practice”) and supporting actress Holland Taylor (“The Practice”).

One year before that, such Emmy first-timers as Camryn Manheim (best supporting actress, “The Practice”) and John Leguizamo (best variety performance, “Freak”) scored. Leguizamo beat such heavyweights as Chris Rock, Dennis Miller, Tracey Ullman and George Carlin.

Up the H’wood ladder

“That’s cool,” Leguizamo says of his win. “I really felt the power of winning. People, reporters, friends, foreigners, treated me different. One Emmy is worth two Golden Globes in the bush.”

When Badalucco triumphed, Daily Variety reported that he looked “shocked by his win” and was “unable to cram in the names of every one of his colleagues. He thanked them all with a blanket ‘I’ll write you a letter!’ ”

“I was totally overcome with exhilaration,” Badalucco says now, recalling the moment. “When they call your name, you don’t expect it.” He credits voters with “not buying into the hype” surrounding his competish, which included Noah Wyle (“ER”), Benjamin Bratt and Steven Hill (“Law & Order”) and “Practice” co-star Steve Harris.

“You gotta believe you won because you were the best and not because of some popularity contest,” Leguizamo adds. “I want to believe there is a meritocracy.”

Leguizamo and Badalucco won after voters, sitting on judging panels, watched videotapes of their work while being policed by monitors.

Are judging panels the reason that first-time nominees tend to do so well at the Emmys? Badalucco thinks that they’ve done a fair job.

No bias

“When people were in those hotel rooms looking at our work, they voted for what moved them or compelled them or made them think,” he says. “It wasn’t about hype or flash.”

This year, after much debate, the Emmy voting system is different. The judging panels are gone in the top 27 categories while voters ink their ballots at home after they receive the videotapes in the mail. Is Badalucco, a returning nominee, worried?

“It’s a new century,” he says. “Let’s try something new and see how it checks out. The important thing is that people look at our work before voting. If they don’t do that, it should be reflected in the results.”

Most interesting will be discovering how frosh nominees fare under the new voting system. That could prove to be its ultimate test.

Tom O’Neil is the author of “Variety’s The Emmys” (Perigee Books).

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