Golden girl Emmy tries for new luster with Shandling, voting change

— Tonight's Emmy ceremony could end up one of the most engaging in recent memory.

At this point, many readers may be scratching their heads in an attempt to uncover Emmy memories for comparison's sake. Last year's show was the lowest-rated Emmy broadcast in nearly a decade, drawing about 17 million viewers.

All Emmys, all the time: E! Entertainment Television makes the most of Emmy day with a full eight hours of pre-show programming. "Live Countdown to the Prime Time Emmys," beginning at 11 a.m., offers a look at Shrine Auditorium preparations and a glance back at a decade of ceremonies. Then Joan Rivers and daughter, Melissa, take over at 5 p.m. with red-carpet interviews with nominees, presenters and other available celebrities. Badly dressed stars, beware.The 52nd Annual Prime Time Emmy ceremony begins at 7 p.m. on ABC.

About 19 million people watched in 1998, not much more impressive considering the 51 million viewers who tuned in to the "Survivor" finale or the audience of about 46 million that saw the Academy Awards last March.

"Survivor" boasted the wily future millionaire Richard Hatch as a chief attraction. The Oscars have the allure of really well-dressed movie stars and the freshness of a different slate of contenders each time around.

What are the Emmys doing, short of stranding the nominees on a distant island in designer outfits or refusing to let shows and performers acquire trophies in bulk by competing year after year?

First off, this year's host is the reliably witty Garry Shandling, star of the late, great "The Larry Sanders Show." He could single-handedly rescue what tends to be a dreary three-hour parade of the actors we usually see on television anyway.

Rolling with the punches

When it comes to preparation and hard work, Shandling seems to be emulating Oscar king Billy Crystal.

"We've never had a host put so much effort and commitment into hosting the Emmys," said Don Mischer, executive producer of the 52nd Annual Primetime Emmy ceremony (airing at 7 p.m. on ABC).

Shandling, who has worked weekends pre-taping comedy bits and polishing his opening monologue, also has the advantage of a stand-up comic's poise.

"If we see a disconnect between the performances on tape and the voting outcome on Sunday, it will tell us that the voters did not see the tapes and that the Emmys are about buzz and popularity and things other than the best performance of the year."

� author Thomas O'Neil

"During the course of the show, he'll be very quick on his feet, he'll be able to roll with the punches," Mischer said. "As things happen, we'll write new stuff for him right away � when you're in my shoes producing a show, that's a tremendous advantage."

"And Gary loves television," he added. "I think we're going to have irreverence, but under the irreverence will be an obvious love of television and a very positive attitude toward the Emmys."

Good, all good. This year's show also offers the chance to observe Emmy history being made with a voting experiment aimed at opening the winner's circle up a bit wider.

Rock the vote

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences abandoned its longtime "blue ribbon" judging panels that required members to sequester themselves in a hotel for a weekend of watching the nominated shows.

That approach tended to draw older academy members with more free time. The new system, with videocassettes available for home viewing, is aimed at bringing in more diverse voters who might be friendlier to cutting-edge shows like "The Sopranos." HBO's critically acclaimed mob drama was nearly snubbed at last year's ceremony, drawing just two big awards (best actress for Edie Falco and best writing for a drama).

One element is unchanged: Acting nominees are judged not on an entire season's worth of work but on the single episode they feel represents their best effort. For comedy and drama series contenders, eight episodes are considered.

The drama over drama

The big showdown is between NBC's political drama "The West Wing" and "The Sopranos," which will go head-to-head in six categories, including best drama and best actor (Martin Sheen for "West Wing," James Gandolfini for "Sopranos").

"Sopranos" also is competing in the best dramatic actress category with bids for co-stars Falco and Lorraine Bracco.

"West Wing" begins the evening with a numerical advantage, having received four creative arts Emmys at a ceremony held two weeks ago to dispense the bulk of Emmy trophies. Twenty-seven major awards will be given Sunday.

Not everyone is convinced they will go to the most deserving.

Thomas O'Neil, author of the history "Variety's The Emmys," has publicly criticized the academy for abandoning the voting panels, which he said made the Emmys unique in guaranteeing that judges actually saw what they were voting on.

"If we see a disconnect between the performances on tape and the voting outcome on Sunday," O'Neil said, "it will tell us that the voters did not see the tapes and that the Emmys are about buzz and popularity and things other than the best performance of the year."

Proof from the pick

One category, best actress in a comedy series, could reveal whether the new system works, O' Neil said. Based on the submitted episodes, Patricia Heaton of "Everybody Loves Raymond" should triumph for her portrayal of a woman on the verge of a monthly nervous breakdown.

"I think Heaton's episode is such a fireworks display that it clearly outshone all the others," said O'Neil. "I think under the old system, there's no way it could lose."

Other superior performances include those of Dennis Franz, railing against God for his son's illness in "NYPD Blue"; Sela Ward as a woman facing divorce and dating in the pilot for "Once and Again"; and John Lithgow romping at a gay bar he believes harbors fellow space aliens in "3rd Rock From the Sun."

Will they be winners Sunday? Will viewers? Emmy's got a lot riding on the answers.



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