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Ex-Emmy chief blasts new voting process

July 13, 2006 |  8:56 am

There's a curious single-line posting added to Scott Collins' recent Emmy tirade at Channel Island. Click here and scroll down to a comment from Bryce Zabel: " Scott: Amen to that. Faith in blue-ribbon panels is sorely misplaced. Bryce."

Zabel is the former chairman of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which administers the Emmys. He also made a coy dismissal of the new voting process at his blog (click here) the day nominations were announced, an event he refused to witness live at a press conference attended by international media last Thursday at 5:30 a.m. Pacific time: "I was going to blog about the process and how it's changed, but my friends at the academy get enough advice on days like today. So I'll limit my comment to the observation that it felt wonderful sleeping in."

A few hours later he felt less friendly and lifted that limit, but confined his protest to that one-line salvo in Collins' column.

This squabbling reminds me of the fighting that broke out when the father of bizarre TV, "Twilight Zone's" Rod Serling, instituted judging panels to pick Emmy winners when he was TV academy president back in the 1960s. Up until then Emmy nominees and champs were chosen by an outright popular vote, which was foolish. The Emmys can't use the same voting system as the Oscars. There are only about 30 films seriously in the Oscar running every year and they're so prominent that it's likely voters have seen them. On TV, there are thousands of hours of quality programming competing for Emmys. By using a popular ballot, the obvious result occurred. The most popular shows prevailed and two of the three networks (ABC and CBS) were so disgusted after 20 years of vote results that they quit the academy. Suddenly, it looked like Emmy — TV's once-dear Golden Girl — was dead.

Desperate to survive, the academy offered the job of president to Serling, a five-time Emmy winner who had previously served as an academy officer, and they gave him a mandate to try anything, however radical, to save the day. He not only wrote like an angel, but he knew the dark side of Hollywood, knew how academy members were prone to cave in to pressure from their employers to vote for their own network's shows (those old bloc-voting scandals), especially if they were unfamiliar with all nominees in a category. Serling instituted lots of brave, extreme, sometimes even wacky, voting changes, one that even looked like it was beamed in from the Twilight Zone: categories could have one, two or more winners or possibly none, depending on how worthy voters felt the nominees to be. But there was this strict caveat: from now on TV academy members could only vote if they actually saw what they were voting on. All nominees were asked to pick a sample of their best work from the past TV season that would be evaluated carefully by new judging panels convening in hotel rooms on weekends. The panels would be policed by samurai monitors forbidding discussion so voters could make their picks without outside influence.

"It's time we became not just an industry, but an art form!" Serling proclaimed.

The result was catastrophic. On telecast night, Emmywatchers scratched their heads when there were 4 winners and 10 losers in the roundup category of Best Entertainment Programs and 5 winners and 11 losers in the race for Best Achievement in Entertainment by Individuals.

The media explosion the next day was volcanic. "Instead of bubbling like champagne, it was like molasses from the deep freeze," Hedda Hopper whined about the 1965 ceremony. "Dick Van Dyke must have known something. He didn't show."

"It was a calculated risk and we lost," Serling conceded to Variety. "We just took the wrong road. I have to bear the responsibility. I'll take my place in the dock."

But Serling didn't remain in place for long. After serving just one year in office, he quickly bolted, furious and bitter, proclaiming that the academy was doomed to be a house divided that cannot stand, adding, "I don't think it will be missed."

Serling was wrong, of course, and the Emmys limped along, returning the awards to their old category divisions with 5 nominees and 1 winner, but his judging panels survived, leaving behind a legacy that is probably Serling's greatest career achievement, even including the brilliant programs he created personally. His panels have continued to show a consistent disregard for Nielsens, helping to save low-rated series like "Cheers," "Hill Street Blues," "All in the Family" and many, many more. One month after George C. Scott refused his Oscar for "Patton" in 1971, he accepted an Emmy for starring in Arthur Miller’s "The Price" on Hallmark Hall of Fame because he believed the award had integrity. He told Variety, "It's given by a blue ribbon jury of my peers and not as a general vote, like the Oscar."

In 2000, the academy switched to at-home voting, which was a huge gamble because voters would no longer be policed. Sure, they tripled the number of participating academy members, from 1,500 to 4,500, but what if voters secretly shirked their duty and just checked off their ballots and mailed them in? Results would be the same as what we saw using a popular ballot before 1965. I was the loudest critic of the change, but, when the first results were unveiled and the L.A. Times called me for comment, I conceded that the voting switch was "a triumph." Since the early 1990s I'd watched all of the episodes submitted by lead nominees and it was clear that the strongest submissions still won out.

The problem with the Emmys since 1965 has been what to do with the nominations, which were still chosen by popular ballot, thus recently shafting the new, lower-rated networks like FX, WB, UPN, USA, Sci-Fi and Showtime. This year the Emmys bravely brought back those trusty ole judging panels to the rescue, aiming to use them to pick nominees from lists of the 15 finalists for best lead actor and actress and top 10 vote-getters among series. At-home voting wasn't an option because the Emmycast was moved up to late August from mid-September to get out of the way of telecaster NBC's Sunday football lineup, cutting out 23 days between the date when nominating ballots go out and winners are announced.

The result was a failure when measured by its goal: to bring more lead contenders from those alternative networks. The academy needs to throw the net further in the future, roping in more than just the top 10 and 15 — probably trying 15 and 20 or more next time. But otherwise the new voting was another triumph, frankly. Proof of that is in how many departing and canceled shows made the cut — more evidence that the panels don't give a hoot about Nielsens and all that. It's always been one of the most noble and heroic things about the Emmys. Even one of the coolest. Departing shows should be given equal weight with the ongoing hits, regardless of what Channel Island's Scott Collins wrote fuming over the inclusion of "Arrested Development" in the race for best comedy series: "When will the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences get the memo? No matter how many times 'Arrested Development' gets nominated for outstanding comedy series (this year makes three, which coincidentally is how many viewers regularly tuned in), the show has gone surfing and it's not coming back. Can't they find a non-terminal cause to champion — like, say, 'Lost,' MIA in the drama category while the exiting 'The West Wing' gets a parting shot?"

The reason "West Wing" got a parting shot is because, like "Arrested Development," it deserved it. Most TV critics agree that it rallied creatively this year. The reason "Lost" was omitted was the same reason "Desperate Housewives" got snubbed. Usually, it's obvious to contenders which episodes they should submit to judging panels, but this year we had a huge outbreak of the Susan Lucci Disease. "Lost" screwed up by submitting "Man of Science," which was full of so many unexplained oddities and dangling plot lines that it baffled panelists who aren't regular viewers. Had producers submitted what's Michael Ausiello calls its best episode of the season, the self-contained story about the Tailies, "The Other 48 Days," "Lost" surely would've been nommed. "Housewives" didn't make the cut because producer Marc Cherry apparently thinks that the top series category is for funniest show, instead of best series that defines itself as a comedy. Cherry didn't permit his best episode, "Remember 2," to be seen by any panel, including the acting ones, opting instead for what he considered the most giggle-inducing episodes. Hasn't he heard that no one really believes that "Housewives" is a comedy?

The TV academy is planning further tweaks of the new nominating system next year that will try harder to bring in more FX, WB and Showtime programs, but none of them will get nominations if they get bit by that Susan Lucci bug. As mentioned above, that's normally not an issue, but there was an epidemic breakout this year that hit at the most unfortunate time when the daredevil academy was vulnerable to criticism.

Meantime, to those of you who insist that there's obviously still a problem with using panels to pick nominees because "Sopranos" stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco weren't nominated: shut up. At least for now. Your point may turn out to be true, but you probably haven't seen the episodes submitted by the five nominees who got chosen instead. Obviously, they're real winners and the Emmys are supposed to champion underdogs like Christopher Meloni of "Law & Order: SVU," who, by the way, gave a dazzling performance in "Ripped." See it right now in the links provided at The Envelope's forum — CLICK HERE! There you can also watch most episode submissions being viewed by academy voters picking winners. (To see the comedy submissions, CLICK HERE!) Once you experience the Emmy voting process yourself, you can't help but have profound respect for it, even when you disagree with its choices.

Unless you're Bryce Zabel. Memo to Mr. Zabel: please stop limiting yourself and speak up further. What's your quibble with bringing back the process of careful scrutiny to whittle down Emmy nominees? I emailed you yesterday for comment, but haven't heard back. It'd be great to hear what you have to say.