Why are TV’s top-rated shows ignored at the Emmys?

Strangely, there’s something missing from the list of TV shows most popular with Emmy voters – the programs most popular with all TV viewers. Why weren’t “N.C.I.S.,” “The Mentalist” and “Burn Notice” nominated in top categories?

Police procedurals used to cop lots of major Emmys. “NYPD Blue,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Law and Order” even won Best Drama Series, but the newer “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” hasn’t even been nominated for that top prize throughout its 12 hugely popular TV seasons. What gives?

Police procedurals have fallen out of favor at the Emmys as new cable channels have grown in prominence offering voters more snobbish options like HBO’s “The Sopranos” (winner, best drama series, 2004) and AMC’s “Mad Men” (2009, 2010, 2011) than they see on broadcast TV. As usual, cable shows dominate the newest list of nominees for Best Drama Series, claiming four of the six spots: “Boardwalk Empire” (HBO), “Dexter” (Showtime), “Game of Thrones” (HBO) and “Mad Men” (AMC).

Most pundits predicting the winner are betting on “Mad Men” to repeat or “Boardwalk Empire” to rule, but even if “The Good Wife” (CBS) or “Friday Night Lights” (NBC/DirecTV) delivers a rare win for broadcast TV, it will be because those shows have elitist appeal too.


There’s just no getting around highfalutin pretension in Hollywood. It’s no small coincidence that the biggest winner in Emmy history, with 37 awards, is a TV show about two effete brothers bickering over opera and vintage wines (“Frasier”). Over on the drama side, prior to the recent romp by the stylish “Mad Men,” the biggest champ was one of the tube’s highest-class shows ever, “The West Wing,” which won Best Drama Series four years in a row (2000-2003).

Meantime, some of the greatest series in TV history without an ounce of snob appeal never got nominated for a single Emmy, not even in the lowly tech categories: “The Brady Brunch,” “Melrose Place,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “Green Acres” and “The Munsters.”

The Emmys aren’t alone in this bias. The same snub occurs at the Oscars where indie artsy movies like “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “The Hurt Locker” (2009) have ruled in recent years. Big box-office blockbusters rarely get nominated for the top prize, even when critics heap rapturous reviews upon them. The Oscars felt the sting of public outrage when “The Dark Knight” wasn’t nominated for Best Picture of 2008, so the academy expanded the list to 10. That didn’t help, though, so now Oscar leaders will try new tricks to whip up interest and excitement.

At the Emmys in 2009, TV academy leaders responded to a similar crisis by expanding the list of nominees to six from the usual five. Because of a close vote, seven contenders actually got nominated for Best Drama Series, but the extra room didn’t accommodate the Nielsen hits. Instead, “Breaking Bad” (AMC) broke in, much to everyone’s astonishment, and HBO’s “Big Love” got in even though it reaped no noms in other major categories.

In the end, maybe nothing can be done and TV’s top shows should stop striving for golden statuettes and be happy with all of the gold they pull in from ad dollars thanks to those 24-karat TV ratings. The most successful series in the history of international TV was never nominated for a single Emmy back in the U.S. – “Baywatch” – but its producers never expected one and probably, in the end, didn’t care.


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