Too much trust a threat to award integrity

Home viewing, panel dispersal could taint Emmys

Imagine a TV universe without “Cheers,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Cagney & Lacey”: all originally low-rated sleepers saved from early cancellation after winning Emmys.

But future shows like them are exactly what’s at stake in this upcoming experiment over home viewing. If Emmy voters don’t watch the videotapes before inking their ballots, then they’ll probably choose popular faves and Emmy’s noble history of championing underdogs is kaput.

Right now, the Emmy is by far the most accurate and fair prize in showbiz history because it’s the only one that guarantees all nominees that their work will be seen by all voters. So why are TV academy leaders daring to mess with such a legacy?

Because they have a very real problem getting members to attend judging panels. But instead of trying to solve that issue, they’re considering killing the panels altogether, which have always been a headache to organize and fill up. After all, who wants to leave his or her swimming pool on a lazy Sunday and head to a panel room to do sacred industry voting duty once a year?

There were many things that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences could’ve tried to solve the attendance problem; namely, increase the number of panels and make them more convenient for voters. ATAS could’ve held additional panels at USC and UCLA (both are affiliated with the acad), the Museum of TV & Radio, corporate conference rooms after hours (after clearing conflict-of-interest problems) and even members’ homes.

In each case, ATAS would merely have to make sure that the integrity of the voting process was maintained by the presence of a monitor. But now the academy plans to trust voters to watch the tapes on their own. Will they?

No. Current and historic evidence overwhelmingly suggests that they won’t. Right now, for example, there are persistent allegations that most of the programs submitted for news and sports Emmys aren’t watched in their entirety due to lax monitors or the absence of supervision at that other TV academy, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, based in New York. The same problem was so rampant throughout the 1980s that networks frequently boycotted those kudos.

And if voters don’t watch the tapes, they’ll probably just vote for what’s hip. That means that not only are underdog shows at risk, but underdog networks, such as the History Channel and Comedy Central.

In a few more years, once they all start realizing that they’re not winning Emmys, they’ll do exactly what ABC and CBS did in 1965 when winners were still determined by a popular vote — they’ll quit the Emmy race. Together those two webs nearly killed off ATAS — and the Emmy Award — back then. The only thing that saved the day was the introduction of judging panels, which became the heroic legacy of then-ATAS prexy Rod Serling.

It’s Serling’s ghost that hovers over the current drama, and ATAS leaders have every reason to feel spooked.

– Tom O’Neil is the author of “The Emmys” and “The Grammys” (Perigee Books).

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