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New kids on the dais

Fresh faces hogged the limelight, and the statues, at the Emmy awards last week. Emmy voters fell all over themselves honoring NBC freshman The West Wing. It won awards for best drama, writing (Aaron Sorkin and Rick Cleveland), directing (Thomas Schlamme) and two supporting-cast members (Allison Janney and Richard Schiff). Critics have been saying "hail to the chief" to it all season.

The best-comedy nod and two supporting- acting wins (Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes) for NBC sophomore show Will & Grace weren't real surprises either. But these represented seven first-time wins from an organization often ridiculed for picking the same people year after year. In fact, half of the 26 prime time winners this year were first-timers.

This "What, no Frasier?" factor was being attributed to the changed Emmy process, in which voters screen the nominees at home vs. having to go to a hotel for a screening. That change doubled the number of last year's volunteers to 3,000.

"The larger the pool of people participating in the process, the more likely it is that no particular fan base will control the voting," explains Academy of Television Arts and Sciences CEO and Chairman Meryl Marshall. "It's more democratic."

The new voting procedures are no longer considered an experiment, at least for the prime time categories. "Overall," she says, "I think that there was a great sense of connection for everybody. People felt more vested in the outcomes because more of them had been involved in the voting."

Viewers certainly seemed to like it. Emmy averaged 21.9 million viewers and an 8.8 rating/21 share in adults 18-49 on ABC. An estimated 46 million viewers watched part or all of the Emmys. It was the highest-rated Emmy telecast since at least 1986, when Nielsen began reporting total-viewer figures. In adults 18-49, the Emmys scored an 8.7 rating/21 share in adults 18-49-the highest average in the demo in six years. Compared with last year's Primetime Emmys on FOX, the telecast was up 23% in viewers and 16% in adults 18-49.

One concern about the new voting rule had been that the picks would be too mainstream, but Marshall seems joyous that the choices "were not obvious," such as the two wins for flamboyant British comic Eddie Izzard for writing and individual performance in a variety, music or comedy program.

That's all fine and dandy, but what about the second-straight Sopranos snub? Here's a show that has drawn more critical praise than any in recent memory, including The West Wing, and that arguably should have been helped by ATAS' cozying up to younger series. But, with 18 nominations, it hit only a single high note: best actor in a drama for James Gandolfini.

One suggestion was that it was a politically correct vote for high-mindedness over the very violent Sopranos. But others have speculated that it was a pro-broadcast bias, with voters not yet ready to give the award to a 13-episode cable series fueled by higher production values over a 22-episode network series on a cheaper budget.

Gandolfini recognized both possibilites.

"I wished we had done a little better," he said. "Sopranos deals with violence and drugs. Maybe [voters] wanted something positive. Or maybe people just want to vote for network series still," he said backstage.

However, an HBO source doesn't see any bias against cable.

"I think we've come a long way. We're relatively new with original series," says the source. "It's amazing we've come this far, considering we're not available in every home."

Counting both the Sept. 10 televised awards and the Creative Arts honors handed out Aug. 26, HBO racked up 20 Emmys total, a close second to NBC (23) and way ahead of ABC (15), FOX (11) and CBS (7).

Marshall says HBO's The Corner, which bagged best miniseries, best writing for a miniseries and a directing win (for Charles S. Dutton), did not have a leg up over the networks in terms of resources "but it had an edge [dealing with drugs and poverty] and it did great things."

Diversity, or the perceived lack of it, made an appearance at the Emmy awards, with Chris Rock pointing to the minority-less best supporting actress in a comedy category. Then there was the song parody lampooning, not for the first time, the lily-white cast of Friends. African-Americans Dutton and Halle Berry (best actress in a miniseries) did go home with statues, but minority advocates saw room for improvement.

"It starts with whether you have people to be nominated," says Karen Narasaki, executive director of the National Asian Pacific-American Legal Consortium. "If you're still not hiring the minority talent, then that's what the Emmys will reflect." Bringing The West Wing back to Earth some, Narasaki notes that the actors playing the White House's top people "are all white and mostly male, and that's not reflective of reality today."

With Asian-American Norman Mineta our current Secretary of Commerce, she says, "I wouldn't want The West Wing to be complacent and think they don't have work to do in providing opportunities for minority actors or writers."

NAACP spokesman John White agrees but notes, "We're still more concerned about getting [diverse] programs on the air than worrying about getting any awards."

Admittedly, "we have mountains to climb," says Marshall, who points out that August's Creative Arts awards, honoring mostly technical achievement, "had a lot more diversity represented in the nominations and winners."

Currently, ATAS has "something on the drawing board" that would beef up diversity in TV, says Marshall, but she would not elaborate. ATAS already has an internship program that provides minorities and others a foot in the door.

The new reality shows got plenty of attention during the Emmy telecast, including an opening lampooning the final episode of Survivor. But is there room for such shows on the dais come award time?

Right now, those efforts are placed in the non-fiction category, which are recognized during the Creative Arts ceremony (PBS' American Masters won this time out).

Survivor's producers could compete as best drama, "but that would be tough," according to Marshall.

That said, however, "there will continue to be board discussions. Survivor is a new phenomenon, and it's a very interesting format."

For what it's worth: More Survivors showed up at the Entertainment Tonight-sponsored post-Emmy bash in Beverly Hills than actual actors.