Los Angeles-The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences changed the judging rules for the Emmys this year, and prognosticators believed the revisions would lead to victories for newer and edgier shows.
Wins last week by Fox's Malcolm in the Middle and NBC's Will & Grace were evidence that the changes worked, programmers at the ceremony said. But cable shows did not get the bump that some executives anticipated.
In fact, the big backstage topic-in addition to the ongoing Screen Actors Guild strike over cable commercial compensation-was the near-sweep by NBC's The West Wing over Home Box Office's The Sopranos in head-to-head competition.
It appeared to some that the ATAS changes did not reverse years of broadcast bias by voters. Indeed, most of the wins earned by HBO on the televised primetime awards show Sept. 10 were in categories where cable entries were in the majority.
Overall, cable took home fewer trophies than last year. In 1999, cable networks received 31 statuettes. This year, the take was 28 awards, 20 of which were earned by HBO.
The network's multiple winners included Eddie Izzard: Dressed to Kill and the miniseries The Corner. Other cable-network winners were The Discovery Channel, with four; and Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Turner Network Television, each with one.
The Sopranos was murdered by The West Wing, which ran off with the most gold statues.
"James won the most valuable player, but we won the game," said West Wing star Martin Sheen, who lost best lead actor in a drama series to The Sopranos' James Gandolfini. However, in accepting the Emmy for best drama series, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin conceded, "It's been said before, it's worth saying again, The Sopranos is one of the great achievements in the history of television."
Gandolfini's sole win for The Sopranos kept the show from earning a tie in Emmy record books as the show with the most nominations in a single season without a win. That title, according Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys, is still held by HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, which starred ceremony host Garry Shandling.
Last week's results were a major reversal of those from the Sopranos-dominated Golden Globe Awards. TV executives suggested The West Wing probably benefited from a surge in political interest in a presidential election year.
Gandolfini himself came up with the best rationale for the results: He noted that Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) has been an outspoken critic of television violence, and suggested that Emmy voters did not want to appear to endorse the violent content of his show.
"We're pretty dark," he said.
It's ironic that The Sopranos didn't sweep this year, as its snub at last year's Emmys-at which it first failed to take best drama honors-was one factor that helped precipitate this year's changes in the voting process.
In the past, Emmy categories were judged by "peer panels" made up of a handful of industry veterans. Panelists were often older TV veterans, as judging takes place during the summer production period. This year, the rules allowed people to volunteer to judge by vowing to watch qualified tapes at home.
Meryl Marshall Daniels, the ATAS chairman and CEO, said 3,000 members of the industry agreed to judge entries. Of those, 2,500 returned their ballots, and said they watched all of the eligible submissions in their chosen categories. The voting process will be reviewed in detail at the next executive board meeting.
Unofficial Emmy historian O'Neil said the most alarming trend this year was the static number of awards won by cable networks other than HBO. He said he hoped the at-home voting strategy would be expanded next year, on an experimental basis, to all categories-not just the 27 creative ones-to gauge the impact that would have on cable's performance.
It also seems some producers have yet to master the art of creating tapes that can sway judges. O'Neil said he watched the tapes submitted for Sela Ward and Patricia Heaton, best actress winners for drama and comedy, respectively.
"It's obvious the winners watched their tapes. They just blew away the others," he said.
Winners, of course, said the voting changes were positive.
"I'd say so. It means people like me could be a judge," said Todd Holland, a veteran of The Larry Sanders Show and a winner for his work on Malcolm in the Middle. However, the academy must better explain the specifics on voting by peer group, he said.
Holland said he did not judge because he misunderstood the rules and thought he'd have to view thousands of tapes for every category.
Whether or not they win awards, producers and writers said HBO continues to be the venue of choice for thought-provoking content.
David Simon, who won an Emmy for the gritty miniseries The Corner, said he would have shelved the project if HBO hadn't bought the script.
Television is rightly criticized for its lack of African-American faces, he said, and added that his script-which dealt with black-on-black crime and drug addiction in a Baltimore neighborhood-is filled with images "that aren't very positive." HBO trusted the writers, directors and actors to "get it right," he said.
Emmy winners were exuberant, but the mood darkened when the subject shifted to the current SAG strike and the prospect of a general actors' strike next May. Union members vowed they would not cooperate with any network effort to stockpile episodes in anticipation of a strike.
"We can't do it," said The West Wing's Sorkin. "We can't store up the nuts and berries to make it easier to stay away from the table."
The cable commercial strike is halfway through its sixth month and SAG has stepped up its protests. The guild has voted to expel any member that participates in an affected production, and to bar performers who cross the lines from future membership. Actors want pay-for-play for cable commercials; the advertising agencies want to pay a flat rate for all commercials on broadcast and cable.
Charles Dutton, director of The Corner, was pithy in his assessment of those who fail to honor the picket line, including candidates for elected office.
"All of the athletes and politicians [who appear in commercials now] are scabs. They should be kicked in their collective butts," he said.
Union members are angry with golfer Tiger Woods, who filmed a Buick commercial in Canada in July. But some politicians, including the camp of Republican nominee George W. Bush, have signed interim agreements with SAG, according to the union.
Negotiators for SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists returned to the bargaining table Sept. 13, but job actions continued through the week. SAG members halted construction of an AT & T Corp. switching site in downtown Chicago on Sept. 11. Ironworkers, plumbers and other construction trades refused to cross the picket line, which featured a 20-foot inflatable rat dubbed "Scabby."
Members of the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who work in a nearby AT & T facility also walked out in sympathy, the unions said.
SAG has targeted both AT & T Corp. and General Motors Corp. work sites for pickets in an effort to convince them to endorse its commercial terms.