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RANTS -- AND A FEW RAVES -- FOR EMMY RULES ‘FIX’

Times Staff Writer

One Emmy voter calls it a “blunder” and yearns for a chance to do the whole thing over. Another expresses “dismay” at a ratings system that ranks “excellent” above “superior.” The disgruntled entertainment president of one network fumes, “It’s a problem.”

And even one of the nominees calls it “freakazoid.”

Yes, after several years in which the biggest issue was the usual-suspects nature of the nominees, the Emmys finally have a red-hot controversy going.

And no one’s feeling the heat more than Dick Askin, the chairman and chief executive of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, who over the weekend saw a barely air-conditioned ballroom at the Ritz-Carlton, Huntington Hotel & Spa in Pasadena turn into a battleground -- with him on one side and an army of unhappy and frustrated television critics on the other.

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To outsiders, the issue -- a seemingly arcane rule change designed to improve the Emmy chances of oft-overlooked shows such as the WB’s “Gilmore Girls” -- might appear to be just another tempest in a Hollywood awards-show teapot. (Remember the howls over Oscar screeners a couple of seasons back?) But for some fans, critics, television executives and members of the creative community, it’s nothing short of butterfly ballots in Florida.

And it’s even possible that the rhetorical slugfest will turn into a ratings disappointment when the show airs; some insiders predict that because many fan favorites were passed over in the new nomination process, the ceremony could take a major viewership hit when it is broadcast Aug. 27 on NBC.

At least one network is dead set on payback: ABC, which is smarting that many of its most popular shows were overlooked in the marquee categories, announced late Friday that it would broadcast the blockbuster film “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” to go head to head with the Emmys.

When asked about ABC’s decision and what it could mean for the Emmys audience and NBC’s ratings, Jeff Zucker, chief executive of NBC Universal Television Group, said: “It’s more formidable competition, and it’s unfortunate.”

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ABC Entertainment President Stephen McPherson has been one of the most vocal critics of the new Emmy procedures, telling reporters last week that the lack of major nominations for “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” -- both big winners last year -- proved that the system this year was flawed.

But others, including NBC’s “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf, have defended the academy, calling McPherson’s claims misguided. And even one blue-ribbon panelist critical of the new rules said the networks’ shortfall could be attributed to producers submitting confusing or subpar episodes for consideration, not the academy.

The roughly 13,000 members of the academy simply do not have time to watch every single show, so selecting the nominees has always been a tricky proposition, and the system has been tinkered with over the years.

Most recently, members voted and ranked candidates from their peer groups, and the top five vote-getters made the ballot. But there were persistent questions, particularly when the same shows seemed to show up year after year. Were staid academy members voting only for their tried-and-true favorites?

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So this year, the academy tried something different in the best comedy, drama, actor/actress and variety, music or comedy series categories. The voting members narrowed their selections down to 10 candidates in the variety, drama and comedy programs category, and to 15 in the performance categories (outstanding lead actor in a comedy, outstanding guest actress in a drama etc.) Then, a smaller group of panelists watched a submitted sample of a candidates’ work and helped winnow the list down to the names and series that appear on the ballots.

The academy hoped that this approach would help balance out members who shun new shows as well as raise the profile of oft-neglected shows. Instead, critics said, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost” lost out, as did HBO’s “Entourage” and “Big Love,” along with niche favorites such as “Gilmore Girls” and FX’s “The Shield” and Sci-Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica.”

Those involved in the nomination process were asked to keep details confidential, so the four panelists and one former member of the academy interviewed by The Times spoke on the condition of anonymity. One panelist said: “There were great shows and great people who didn’t get recognized. I wish there was a way we could pull it all back and start over. I think they’ve made a blunder this year and could figure out a way to make it work next year.”

Echoed another veteran member, a mid-rank studio executive who served on two of the blue-ribbon panels last month: “It felt like pilot testing” -- in which marketers ask sample audiences for general opinions of new shows -- and not a process by which the industry tries to recognize the talent within its ranks.

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The academy invited members to volunteer in May. Then, on June 24 and 25, committees of varying sizes up to 100 gathered at academy headquarters to view episodes submitted by the networks and cable channels. Some panels evaluated a selection of finalists in the comedy and dramatic categories; separate groups watched the dramatic and comedic acting submissions. The screenings were held in morning and afternoon sessions, and the panels were broken up into smaller units so the committees did not know who all the finalists were.

A member of one drama committee said that in a morning session, he and his colleagues watched single episodes of HBO’s “Big Love,” ABC’s “Boston Legal” and FX’s “Rescue Me.” Immediately after each episode was shown, committee members were given a piece of paper that asked them to rate the episode with an “A” (excellent), “B” (superior) or “C” (fair).

Some voters said they asked for clarification -- since the middle rating, “superior,” seemed to be a higher ranking than “excellent.” “I was dismayed by what I thought was the confusion in the adjectives,” one voter said. “If you think the very best program is being given a secondary adjective, it didn’t make sense to me.”

But panel members said they had bigger problems with the requirement that they grade individual episodes immediately after they had been viewed, and groused that they would have preferred to watch all the submissions first and then rank them. Panelists were also not allowed to reconsider their ballots, even if they felt the second or third performance outshone the previous one.

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“We had to choose, even if we didn’t know what was coming next,” said one panelist. “There was no wiggle room, and we couldn’t change our vote.” Added another: “I would have preferred to vote on the three, rather than individually. It would have been a more accurate vote had we had the chance to see all three shows and compare them in quality.”

But John Leverence, academy senior vice president, said of the process: “The intent was to get an immediate reaction to the episode, and not pit one episode against the other. We didn’t want comparisons, we wanted a completely independent opinion.”

Some panelists questioned whether the voting was skewed against edgier fare. One said, “The age of my panel was mostly over 40, and there might have been a tendency to vote conservatively. Work that’s a little bit out there may not fare as well.” Another panelist disagreed, saying she thought the panels had a good cross-section of academy members.

Despite the controversy, Leverence dubbed the new rules a qualified success: “The intent of the hybrid system to screen the top 15 in the performance categories was to bring into the candidacy fold individuals who would have been at the periphery of that fold. Those people were very well represented among the 15 candidates.”

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Wolf, the “Law & Order” creator, agreed. “It’s a much better method for opening up the process, which has a tendency to become sequentially a closed process,” Wolf said Friday. “The fact that Chris finally got recognized is proof in the pudding,” he said referring to Christopher Meloni, who received a nomination for outstanding lead actor in a drama series for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

But even on the morning the nominations were announced, many of those who made the cut were as confused as the rest of the industry is now.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus (best actress nominee for CBS’ “The New Adventures of Old Christine”), who co-hosted the announcements, called the whole thing “freakazoid.” Howard Gordon, executive producer of Fox’s “24,” said that morning that he’d tried to follow the new voting process but found it confusing. “I don’t really know what effect it had, but it seems to work to our benefit so I’m not complaining.” “24" received 12 nominations, more than any other TV series this year.

CBS’ “Two and a Half Men” creator Chuck Lorre said that he understood there were panels watching the episodes but that he had no idea beyond that how it worked. “I don’t care how they did it,” he added. “I’m thrilled. You try to pretend this doesn’t matter but it does.” (The sitcom earned nods in several top categories, including best comedy.)

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At least one of the panelists said it could be the individually submitted episodes that were the problem. The “Lost” episode “was excellent if you knew what was going on, but if voters were unfamiliar with ‘Lost,’ they were lost. What McPherson said is just arrogant.”

And a mid-level network executive who also participated on the panels overseeing best actor and best actress said she sees the value in trying something different -- but added that she does not think it worked.

“I was as surprised as a lot of people were for some omissions that seem like they were pretty obvious omissions,” she said. “But I applaud them for wanting to be able to have some people considered that wouldn’t be the normal go-to considerations. The intent was good.”

The furor over blue-ribbon panels is not new, noted a former top academy official.

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Years ago, committees would hole up at the Beverly Hilton Hotel over a weekend and select the winners from among the finalists. That system was abandoned around 2000 because the panels tended to be largely comprised of older or unemployed members. The rules were changed so that members could receive tapes at home and vote on their favorites.

“Now,” griped the former academy official, “the process that didn’t work for the winners has been adopted for the nominees.”

In Pasadena on Saturday, Askin took exception to that characterization. “There were many, many executives from the studios and also from the networks that were on the blue-ribbon panels,” he said.

Looking on the bright side, the show’s executive producer, Ken Ehrlich, told the press gathering, “I don’t want to say any controversy is good, but ... if this engenders a little more interest in the show itself, I think whatever it is, it’s going to wind up being positive.”

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Conan O’Brien, the award show’s host, who was also on hand Saturday, quipped to critics: “We’re planning more controversies between now and August, some stuff that’s just going to blow your socks off.”

*

Times staff writers Scott Collins, Maria Elena Fernandez, Meg James and Lynn Smith, contributed to this report.


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