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Clearing up the category conundrum

How supporters become leads

In 1995 and 1996, Julianna Margulies was nominated for drama actress for playing nurse Carol Hathaway on “ER.” In 1997, she was nominated as a lead.

From 1995-99, “Friends” co-star Matthew Perry was considered for comedy supporting actor. In 2000, he was submitted in the lead actor category. In 2001, he was entered again as a supporting actor. This year, he’s back in consideration as a lead.

Last year, Martin Sheen was nominated for lead actor in a drama for playing President Bartlet on “The West Wing.” So was cast mate Rob Lowe, who plays Bartlet’s subordinate, deputy communications director Sam Seaborn.

Confusing? Sure. But under Emmy nomination guidelines, it all makes sense.

Every television season, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences solicits hundreds of entries from eligible actors and actresses in lead and supporting categories. Each lead performer submits an episode that he or she feels best represents their talent. Those entering into supporting categories submit two episodes.

Agents, managers, publicists, studios, production companies or networks may submit entries for performers, and they sometimes do.

But according to ATAS rules, “the individual who is listed as the ‘eligible entrant’ is considered by the (Academy) to be the person who makes the entry.”

This helps explain the confusion regarding Perry’s brief entry into the lead comedy category in 2000, despite agreement among the rest of the “Friends” cast that, when it comes to awards, no “Friend” would be greater than the rest.

It turns out that Perry’s publicist mistakenly submitted him as a lead. When Perry found out about it, he immediately withdrew himself from consideration. This year, however, he has entered into consideration for the lead category, as has the rest of the show’s cast.

Most other series’ thesps don’t have such solidarity. There’s often a pecking order set up within a production, and people know their place in it. But that order can change when an actor grows or diminishes in stature during the course of a series.

Michael J. Fox, for instance, was Emmy nominated for the first time in 1985 as a supporting actor for his role as Alex P. Keaton on comedy “Family Ties.” The following three years, he was nominated as a lead, winning each time. “ER’s” Margulies, who won for supporting actress in 1995, made a similar category transcendence, gaining nominations for lead actress four times, 1997-2000.

“It tends to be a function of the storyline in a particular year,” says John Leverence, ATAS’ VP of awards.

Emmy guidelines explicitly state that category selection is the decision of the performer, so if a show’s producers have a say in determining who gets placed where, the decision-making is strictly behind the scenes.

Leverence and representatives of several shows emphasize, however, that the final call lies elsewhere.

“A lot of those big decisions tend to be made from the series’ get-go,” Leverence says. “But when someone’s on the cusp of lead and support, what’s important is the choice of the performer and the ratification of the awards committee.”

That’s right: If there’s a question or controversy about placement, ATAS’ awards committee makes the final decision.

The TV Academy also places no limits on how many performers can be entered for each show in a particular category. Again, storylines have an effect: Multiple storylines over a season can give birth to multiple leads.

In any case, almost every performer wants to be recognized for his or her work, so who is ATAS to stand in the way? If the production is so strong that it can elicit enough nomination-worthy performances in a year to load up a category, as five supporting actors on “Hill Street Blues” did in 1982, that’s just the way it goes.

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