Rules for Emmy Nominees Stir Confusion

New rules for Emmy nominations exclude some past winners, creating a bit of a controversy in Hollywood as Sunday night's awards show nears. Matt Roush, senior critic for TV Guide, briefs Liane Hansen on the new rules.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The stars of television gather in Hollywood tonight to see if their work this past season will be honored or ignored at the 50th Annual Prime Time Emmy Awards. Matt Roush puts in a lot of hours in front of the tube. He's senior critic for TV Guide, and we've reached him in his office in New York.

Welcome to the program, Matt.

Mr. MATT ROUSH (Senior Critic, TV Guide): Thank you very much, Liane.

HANSEN: I think we should start with a review of the rules, because last year the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences actually changed them, and panels are now picking the nominees for the major awards. What difference did the change make?

Mr. ROUSH: Well, it's such a tricky process, and I think the real flaw of the Emmys almost any year is how to get down to the nominees, because there's so much TV than there ever used to be. And so what happened this time was they sent out the ballot and when they came - when the initial ballot came back in with, I think, like the top 20 vote getters in the major categories - the Best Drama, Comedy and Lead Actor categories - they convened panels to watch sample episodes of each of like these top 20, to try to winnow down to a, you know, top five for the regular nominee list.

And the idea here was to try to give some of the people who would ordinarily not be chosen in a true popularity contest a chance to make the cut. And this time it worked on behalf of certain actors like Kevin James of The King of Queens, who does a very robust job in a traditional kind of a role, or Christopher Maloney from Law and Order, Special Victims Unit, who had one sensational episode last season. They got to screen that one. He gets a nomination.

But weirdly, it seemed to shove out some other people you would've expected to get nominated if the process hadn't been changed this year. Things like Lost, which won the Best Drama Award last season - had a terrific second year - didn't get nominated. Hugh Laurie, who is the actor in the medical drama, House, which got nominated for Best Drama, the star of the show did not, and for the first time ever, I think, in a regular season for the show.

And The Sopranos, Edie Falco - who I thought was remarkable this year - and James Gandolfini, neither one of them made the cut. Also previous winners like James Spader - who's won the last two years for Boston Legal - he's nowhere to be seen. So there's a randomness about this year's nominees that leave us all sort of scratching our heads about what's going to happen tonight.

HANSEN: There's an interesting nomination this year. Ellen Burstyn has been nominated for her cameo performance in HBO's Mrs. Harris. This isn't a major award, so it was selected by individual voters. She had a 14-second monologue, 38 words. I mean, if she wins her acceptance speech is probably going to be longer. Her appearance was almost an inside joke, because she played Jean Harris in a 1981 TV movie and she won an Emmy for it. So what do you think this nomination says about the voters and the process?

Mr. ROUSH: Well, the way the process really works, it really is in many regards a popularity contest. When you look at the huge ballot of all of these names and all of these shows, very few people watch all of these TV movies. That was in a TV movie miniseries category. She had not even a cameo, really. She basically had an appearance. She just basically showed up, and because people know Ellen Burstyn's name, they check her off the list.

I think the real flaw here is that HBO, or whoever was behind this, should have never put her name up in that category as a nominee. That is a - you have to do that, you have to do it yourself, it isn't just rote. It just isn't by rote.

So every nomination, somebody had to be behind putting it on that list in the first place. And that should have never been there. It wasn't a real role that she played. She just basically spoke a couple of lines, but because they know Ellen Burstyn and they like Ellen Burstyn, they figured, well, if Ellen Burstyn was in a movie called Mrs. Harris, which, like you said, she was back in 1981 playing Mrs. Harris back then, she must have been good. So it has nothing to do with them actually having seen her work. They just nominate her because they like her.

HANSEN: But aren't they supposed to see the work? Don't they get submissions?

Mr. ROUSH: Well, at a certain point, when you get down to the point where you're voting on the Emmy itself, anyone who is voting per category is screening episodes, or they sign a waiver saying that they are screening all of this stuff. So when it comes down to the actual winner, those people, I believe, are meant to have actually screened everything. But when you look at the huge, vast list of television shows and television actors and all of this, when it comes - the ballot just comes to your house, there's no way that you can possibly have seen every single thing there. That is the flaw of the system. The people who are voting on the Emmys are the people who make television. They're too busy to watch television.

HANSEN: The Emmys are still recognized, though, as the top awards in television, generate a lot of free publicity...

Mr. ROUSH: Sure.

HANSEN: ...for the shows and the studios and so forth. But a lot of the nominated shows aren't on the air anymore. So does this really make a difference to viewers?

Mr. ROUSH: Well, it's not going to be this year. If shows like the West Wing win or actors from Will and Grace win or Six Feet Under win or even a cancelled show like Commander in Chief, for which Geena Davis is nominated to win, it's going to look more like a wake than a celebration of television because all of the shows either had their last gasp or were canceled.

The one person from a dead show that I would like to see win, however, is Lisa Kudrow from the HBO comedy series The Comeback. She was brilliant. The show wasn't quite so brilliant. Didn't make it to a second year, but she played a faded, washed-up sitcom star coming back to television and she was delusional and she was hilarious and she was poignant.

But the show isn't around anymore, so it is kind of weird. It's not going to help The Comeback that it wins an Emmy, but this is really an award for excellence as well. If a show went out with a flourish, there's no reason not to reward it if it really is the best show or the best actor in that category.

HANSEN: What does it say about television that the awards ceremony itself was rescheduled to make room for football?

Mr. ROUSH: Well, what it tells you is that NBC cares more about football than it does the Emmys because the reason it's not on in September is because NBC has contracted with the NFL to run football on Sunday nights. I think that NBC probably should have just dropped out of the rotation and let one of the other networks have it this year so that it could air in its proper place, which is right at the start of premiere week.

The Emmys are supposed to be the bell weather to say here comes the fall season. Instead, it's happening on the Sunday before Labor Day, pretty much out of sight, out of mind.

HANSEN: What do you watch for on Emmy night? I figure it's the clothes.

Mr. ROUSH: Oh, sure, the clothes. I mean, it's like any awards show. You want to see your favorite stars, you know, all glammed up, that sort of a thing. And of course, I have vested interest in seeing who wins some of these categories. If in the drama series category 24 were to win, I'd be very happy. It would make my whole night worthwhile watching the Emmys because I love 24.

Five seasons in, 24 had one of its best seasons. It's never won for Best Drama and maybe it could this year. Because I'm a fool - I'm Charlie Brown with a football. I come into this thing with hope that I will actually like who is chosen as winner. And with the Emmys I'm always disappointed.

HANSEN: Matt Roush is senior critic for TV Guide. The Emmy Awards will be broadcast this evening from Hollywood. Matt, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us.

Mr. ROUSH: Thank you, Liane.

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