The e-mail to ABC executive Jeffrey Bader from an old college friend leveled a complaint that had nothing to do with the network.
“I sure won’t be watching the Emmys, because the nominations are so ridiculously stupid,” wrote the irritated viewer, an archivist in Boston.
She’s in the ranks of those riled up about TV academy rules changes that seemed to lead to nonsensical omissions. Where was ABC’s “Lost,” where was Hugh Laurie for Fox’s “House,” where were powerhouse mob couple James Gandolfini and Edie Falco for HBO’s “The Sopranos”?
And how the heck did Ellen Burstyn earn a nod for a microwave-fast performance totaling 14 seconds, and could she win at Sunday’s ceremony (8 p.m. ET on NBC)?
Under the revised approach, blue-ribbon panels played an instrumental role in determining nominees in the categories of drama and comedy series — previously decided by a general membership vote — and lead actors and actresses in series.
‘Lost’ loses, ‘Grey’s’ winsThe panelists screened episodes that were submitted by prospective nominees themselves as the best example of their work.
“Lost,” last year’s best drama winner, lost out, while Fox’s “24” with 12 bids and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” with 11 made out like bandits. Another beneficiary was Christopher Meloni, getting his first acting nod for NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” after seven seasons.
The TNT miniseries “Into the West” with 16 nominations and HBO’s “Elizabeth I” with 13 are the leading contenders.
“All the nominees are in there because the arguments they made (in their episode selections) won the day,” said John Leverence, longtime awards director for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Tom O’Neil, author of “The Emmys” and host of the awards-focused Web site TheEnvelope, is in agreement. Sometimes, he argues, good artists just make bad choices.
“For the most part, stars and shows know what their best episodes are to submit. But every now and then you have stars pick big, campy performances instead of performances with range and nuance,” O’Neil said.
In the case of “Lost,” the convoluted series about stranded plane-crash survivors, the season-premiere episode submitted for it was “a head-scratcher with dangling plot lines and unexplained turns,” he said. It didn’t stand a chance with judges.
Burstyn’s nomination is an example of what can happen in categories in which nominees are picked by mass balloting and without panels screening their work, O’Neil said.
The academy declined comment on Burstyn’s case, as has the actress herself. As with all categories, the winner will be determined by academy voters who sign affidavits that they have viewed the performances.
Over the years, the academy has tinkered with the nominations and award process and even categories themselves (for one, there was a best new series award for a short time). Academy Chairman Dick Askin acknowledged the latest criticism at a news conference in July and said it was “always our plan that this would be a one-year test.”
Does anyone care about the Emmys?
On the flip side, the academy and TV industry could consider the fuss a welcome sign — proof that someone still cares about the awards, which lack the cachet of big brother Oscar and have less room for error when it comes to drawing viewers.
Millions more regularly watch TV than go to movies. One episode of a top-rated show like “American Idol” can draw 30 million or more viewers; in its recent record-breaking opening weekend, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel was seen by about 20 million people.
But the Emmys, marking their 58th year, attract far fewer viewers than the Academy Awards.
The 2005 TV awards, with a big ratings bounce from fans of “Lost” and Desperate Housewives” eager to see if their favorites claimed Emmy gold, drew 18.5 million viewers. The latest Oscar telecast had its second-worst showing in two decades and still drew close to 39 million viewers.
Conan O’Brien, returning for a second stint as Emmy host, knows he faces an uphill ratings battle. Moved away from its traditional September home because of NBC’s addition of Sunday-night football to its schedule, the ceremony is airing during TV’s least-watched month.
“There’s a part of me that wants to be part of a very hot, sweaty, low-rated telecast, filled with controversy that makes all critics angry because they think the wrong people were nominated,” O’Brien joked, and then turned serious.
“Regardless of how many people watch the Emmys, I feel like I’m part of something I believe in. ... I think television’s never been better, the quality of the writing and the stuff is so well-produced, and you have actors like Hugh Laurie, who I’m sort of in awe of, and shows like ‘House’ and ‘24.”’
Can be a ratings blessing for winnersIf the Emmys lack ratings luster, can they hope to measure up to the Academy Awards in terms of financial windfall? Oscar’s blessing, experts say, holds the possibility of adding tens of millions of dollars to the box-office gross for a best-picture winner.
An Emmy Award’s value can eclipse that, O’Neil argues.
When voters give an award to a struggling but worthy series like “All in the Family,” “Cheers” or “The Practice,” it can mean salvation. And when those shows end up running for years the advertising and syndication revenue can reach the billion-dollar range, he said.
For individual winners, the payoff may be strictly an ego boost. Consider O’Brien, who received an award in 1989 as a “Saturday Night Live” writer.
“The most disappointing conversation you can have in your life is to talk to your agent after you win an Emmy and say, ‘Wow, what are we going to do with all this momentum?’ I remember saying that to my agent. And he looked at me, like, ‘What are you? Stupid?’
Writer Melissa Jo Peltier, a two-time Emmy winner, said the awards meant zero financial gain. But her successful writer-director husband, John Gray (“Ghost Whisperer”) is wistful over being Emmyless thus far.
“He’d just like to have one some day. It’s like Phi Beta Kappa,” she said.
If anyone should know the benefit of an Emmy it’s Dennis Franz (“NYPD Blue”), a four-time winner. While congratulatory calls from friends and co-workers ebbed by the third and fourth trophies, that’s when the career advantage, including movie offers, kicked in.
“Professionally, after one, I don’t know that it changes a great deal. After multiple ones, you find there are several doors open to you.”