- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2000

LOS ANGELES The attitude, not the years, made the Emmys seem old in their fifth decade.

Cutting-edge programs such as Garry Shandling's "The Larry Sanders Show" with 56 nominations over six years but only three trophies were snubbed under a voting system that drew judges with conservative artistic tastes.

After viewing an episode last year of "The Sopranos," the no-holds-barred mob drama, one judge sniffed, "I could never vote for a show which used that kind of language," according to an academy insider.

When the 52nd annual prime-time Emmy nominees are announced tomorrow, they'll be judged under a revamped system that could favor bolder shows.

In a bid to energize the TV honors, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is abandoning its longtime "blue ribbon" judging panels, which required members to commit to weekend videotape viewing at one hotel. While that ensured that judges viewed each nominee, it favored members who had more leisure time and tended to be older.

Now judges can plop down in front of their own TV sets at their convenience to watch tapes.

The academy, which is experimenting with the approach in the top categories, says change was overdue: Last year, the Emmy broadcast drew its lowest ratings since 1990.

"You may see programs win that traditionally have been seen as too avant-garde or too edgy for the academy," academy President James B. Chabin says. "What we're trying to do is throw the doors open and bring in a new generation."

Which could mean new hope for frisky sitcoms (and potential nominees) such as "Malcolm in the Middle," "Will & Grace" and "Sex and the City," the fierce "Sopranos," or acclaimed newcomers "The West Wing" and "Once and Again."

"The Sopranos" received a leading 16 nominations in 1999 but lost out as best drama to "The Practice" and won only two major awards (for lead actress Edie Falco and for best drama-series writing).

At least the show made it to the party. Many younger-skewing series, such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," have failed to merit serious Emmy consideration.

The numbers indicate the revised system is working, the academy says. About 1,200 panelists volunteered last year for hotel duty, says John Leverence, vice president for awards. This year, there could be as many as 4,000 judges.

The biggest surge has come in the drama and comedy series categories, which have jumped from about 100 to 150 judges each to about 400 to 500 so far, Mr. Leverence says.

"I've got to be hopeful that this year there might be a chance for a spoiler or surprise just because there's new blood involved in the process," says TV Guide critic Matt Roush. The awards show, with Mr. Shandling as host, is Sept. 10 and airs on ABC. Not all are impressed by the awards shake-up. Thomas O'Neil, author of "The Emmys" (Perigee), thinks the revised system is full of static.

"The Emmys were the only show-business award in which every nominee was guaranteed that their work will be seen by every voter. Now that guarantee is gone," he says.

The academy's plan to ensure that voters watch at home by requiring signed affidavits is no substitute for the blue-ribbon panels, Mr. O'Neil says. He thinks the panel system need expansion, not abolition.

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