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Deja view: Originality loses out

Nom repetition the name of the game for Emmys

What difference does a year make? Not much for the major Emmy series categories.

In comedy, this year’s noms for series and actress are exactly the same as 2002’s. Among dramas, the series and actor noms are almost identical, save for the respective re-inclusions of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and series star James Gandolfini. (Both were ineligible for consideration last year as the skein missed the eligibility period.)

Such repetition for Emmy’s major categories is nothing new. Going back 15 years, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences VP John Leverence estimates these categories have seen a repetition rate of about 80% annually.

“It seems that there are certain shows and certain people that, whatever they do, they’re going to get nominated,” says Stephen McPherson, president of Touchstone Television. “There’s a certain mob mentality to the voting, and certain shows are put on a pedestal.”

Some of the low turnover is understandable, given that Emmy evaluates successful series that are televised every year. “It’s a unique situation among major awards shows,” Leverence says.

He believes that series and performers, once nominated, tend to keep getting nominated not because Academy voters are lazy or aren’t open to new programming. It’s more a matter of the voters being reluctant to perform addition by subtraction.

“There has to be a good reason to move something that’s highly regarded as high-level programming out,” Leverence says. “It’s not so much a matter of asking why X isn’t in there, buy why would Y be moved out.”

To an extent, TV critics — who are largely critical regarding the Academy’s nominations procedures — agree.

“I don’t think repeat nominations are necessarily evil,” says USA Today’s Robert Bianco. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Dennis Franz (an eight-time dramatic actor nominee for ‘NYPD Blue’) remains one of the best actors on TV, and I never begrudged him any of the nominations he received. The problem is rote nominations of shows that have long stopped deserving them.”

Indeed, critics charge Emmy’s nomination procedure is inherently flawed because the nominating members are too busy making their TV shows to evaluate properly the entire programming spectrum.

The result, they say, is a nomination process that’s unintuitive and a bit dogmatic, with fresher, more vital programming not getting enough attention. And ultimately, this has hurt the kudo’s credibility.

Irregardless of merit, this year’s comedy category includes oft-nominated programs nearing the end of their respective runs — CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond,” HBO’s “Sex and the City” and NBC’s “Friends,” for example — to the exclusion of fresher notables such as WB’s “Gilmore Girls” and NBC’s “Scrubs.”

Among series performer categories, Emmy critics charge that noms remain focused on a finite number of shows. “There are nominations going to people who are on great shows who aren’t giving great performances,” notes Touchstone’s McPherson.

Some in the industry have suggested that the Emmys adopt an oversight committee to correct egregious nomination gaffes, much like the one used for the Grammys.

For its part, Leverence says the Academy has considered reconstituting its “best new series” category in an attempt to steer more attention to newer shows. Ultimately, it was decided such a tiered nominations system would only hurt Emmy’s credibility more.

“Even though it would be advantageous in terms of bringing in new players, it would probably be perceived as a diminution of the importance of the series categories,” Leverence explains. “Producers would look at it and say, ‘This isn’t a real Emmy. It’s a consolation prize.’ ”

Finally, while Emmy’s trend toward repetition has been particularly acute of late, there’s historical precedent that suggests the pendulum will swing soon.

“The frustrating thing about the Emmys is that it goes through this period where everything is rubber-stamped. And then, just when you’re about to lose hope, everybody sort of buys a box of clues and nominates the right people,” notes San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman.