You don’t have to be a household name to win an Emmy

Those unfamiliar with Emmy voting procedures are likely taken aback from time to time when winners are announced. At most of the top media awards, like the Oscars and Grammys, standing out in a crowded field usually requires a big star, a big hit, or both, while lesser-known artists tend to fall by the wayside.

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There are notable exceptions to the rule, like Jean Dujardin‘s Best Actor Oscar win this year for the modest hit “The Artist” or Arcade Fire claiming the 2010 Album of the Year Grammy for “The Suburbs,” but those kinds of unconventional outcomes are markedly less common than they are at the Emmy Awards.

That’s because the Emmys employ a unique judging system. While most other awards are determined by a popular vote, the Emmys are decided by judging panels viewing samples of the nominated material. And those panels tend to be relatively small, often with less than a hundred voters voting for the winners of each category, as opposed to the nearly 6,000 members of the motion picture academy whose tastes, en masse, are easier to forecast.

Because voters are required to view the nominated work, oftentimes a strong performance by a lesser-known actor can topple a competitor with greater name-recognition. That’s how Debra Monk (“NYPD Blue”) beat Julia Roberts (“Law & Order”) for Drama Guest Actress in 1999, how character actor Zeljko Ivanek defeated his “Damages” costar Ted Danson for Drama Supporting Actor in 2008, and how Paul McCrane (“Harry’s Law“) prevailed against five-time Emmy winner Michael J. Fox (“The Good Wife“) for Drama Guest Actor last year, to name just a few.

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That’s why this year Emmy-watchers would be wise not to underestimate Drama Supporting Actress nominee Joanne Froggatt (“Downton Abbey“), whose tearful performance as head maid Anna makes her a serious threat against her two-time Oscar-winning costar Maggie Smith; our pundits currently give Froggatt 12 to 1 odds, behind Smith (17 to 10) and frontrunner Christina Hendricks (3 to 2).

Michael J. Fox is back in contention for Drama Guest Actor for “The Good Wife,” but veteran actor Mark Margolis‘s mute performance on “Breaking Bad” is a serious challenger. In fact, our pundits currently give Margolis (13 to 8 odds) a narrow lead over Fox (9 to 5).

Other lesser-known actors are on the ballot against high profile stars. Can Comedy Guest Actress nominee Dot-Marie Jones continue “Glee‘s” guest-acting winning streak against Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph (“Saturday Night Live“)? Can first-time nominee Michelle Dockery overtake her Emmy- and Oscar-winning competitors for Drama Actress? Who else might we be underestimating?

OTHER EMMY NEWS:

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Emmy Awards: Complete list of nominations

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Gold Derby users favor Jim Parsons to win third Comedy Actor Emmy for ‘The Big Bang Theory’

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