No vacancy

Rookie skeins have tough time landing top-five slot

Attention, freshman hourlong series: Hoping to crack the Emmy drama category this year? Get in line. Newcomers such as NBC’s “Boomtown,” CBS’ “Without a Trace” and the WB’s “Everwood” could all rightfully consider themselves ready for Academy of Television Arts & Sciences consideration. But barring a monumental shift in voter tastes, they won’t get that chance.

There are simply too many shows and not enough room to recognize everything worthy of praise.

The drama genre has entered a true golden age in recent years, led by classics such as “ER,” “Law & Order” and “NYPD Blue.” One major consumer magazine even proclaimed that TV had far surpassed the feature world in quality.

But while viewers have benefited from a surfeit of top-notch TV, the drama boom has delivered a flood of tapes to ATAS member mailboxes. In addition, “The Sopranos” is back in play this year for a drama series nom after sitting last season out.

The HBO mob drama will assuredly knock one of last year’s contenders — “The West Wing,” “Six Feet Under,” “24,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “Law & Order” — out of contention. At the same time, it would be shocking for any one of those shows to be denied a nomination.

“The West Wing” has won the drama trophy for three straight years, so its incumbency seemingly makes it a lock to return. “Six Feet Under” is a critical darling, while “24” has turned into network TV’s most-buzzed-about drama. “CSI,” on the other hand, is TV’s most-watched drama — making it a voter fave.

And “Law & Order” has been nominated in the category for a record 11 consecutive years. The end of that sweep would be monumental.

Don’t even ask where that leaves everyone else. Sophomore entry “Alias” deserves a nom, too, while the “Law & Order” offspring (“SVU” and “Criminal Intent”) could make a case to earn mentions as well.

“The same shows come back year after year,” notes “Boston Public” exec producer Jonathan Pontell. “Slots just don’t open up that much. If one opens up in a year, there’s a lot of competition.”

Pontell says he’s realistic –“Boston Public” has aired at 8 p.m. since its launch (although it’s moving next season), where few dramas garner nominations. And, he admits, it’s now unlikely that the David E. Kelley show will ever get its day in the sun. “By the time you’re in your fourth season, it’s unlikely you’re going to get there,” he says of a potential nomination.

Of course, the Emmy roadblock isn’t confined to the drama world. When laffers ruled the roost in the late 1990s, the comedy category was similarly filled to the brim, with little room for newcomers. And forget about taking home the trophy — “Frasier” took the award for a record five consecutive years, before “Ally McBeal” broke the streak in 1999.

Is there any other way to recognize series that have splashed onto the scene? From time to time, talk of reviving an outstanding new series (or new comedy/new drama) category picks up steam.

Others, such as Pontell, would like to see a category for outstanding pilots, which usually benefit from higher budgets and bigger production values.

John Leverence, VP of awards at ATAS, says the idea of a new series Emmy comes up every once in a while but never actually makes it to the org’s agenda. That’s because rulemakers worry that a best new series Emmy might detract from the best drama and best comedy kudos.

Once you tier shows into two different categories, depending on whether the show is new or not, you might create a debate over which skein is actually the best of the year, Leverence warns.

For example, “The Practice” won the best drama Emmy in 1997 after its first year on the air, beating longer-running, more established show. Clearly Emmy voters thought it was the top drama. Had “The Practice” won a best new drama trophy, voters might have chosen another series for best drama. Which show could lay claim to tops overall?

“The Emmy is for the best in a particular genre, not the best within a particular time period,” Leverence says. “By setting up a new category, there would be a diminution of the importance of that particular award.”

Director-producer James Burrows agrees, noting that “Cheers” and “Frasier” won the best comedy Emmys in their first years on the air.

“If you’re doing a good show, that’s enough,” Burrows says. “We’re not dumb in this business. Good shows are recognized by the community.”

Still, a best new (fill in the blank) category isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility. The Grammys, after all, have awarded a best new artist award for years (to mixed results as famed lip synchers Milli Vanilli had to return theirs). And the TV Academy did once give out a best new series Emmy — although not since the late 1950s.

“Certainly there’s a lot of appeal to that sort of thing,” Leverence says. “There’s a lot of mass-market appeal, these are hot new shows and people might want to see them on the awards show. But it has not come up on the agenda at the awards committee.”

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