Dan Snierson
April 28, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Deep hush falls over the packed auditorium of tuxedoed and bejeweled Hollywood players, all eyes on the podium. The beaming starlet rips open the envelope, and announces: ”And the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series goes to…Howard Stern‘s Son of the Beach?” The cast of Frasier slump back in their chairs. As the audience applauds uneasily, Stern, flanked by two jiggly strippers, hops up on stage, grabs the mic, and bellows, ”I’m the king of the bleeping world!”

Could such a scene really happen at the Emmy Awards this fall? Well, maybe we got a little carried away. But as Emmy season kicks off, the 52-year-old institution is hoping to shake things up. Smart move. While the Oscars and Grammys have rewarded hipper fare in recent years (American Beauty and Hilary Swank, and Lauryn Hill and Eminem, respectively), the TV industry’s annual fete has been stuck in a rut, naming groaningly repetitive victors (sorry, Frasier and Mad About You‘s Helen Hunt) as fresher, edgier shows continue to be slighted. On the overlooked list: The Sopranos, widely perceived as robbed last year in several major categories; critically beloved but under-rewarded sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond (which has won zip in its three seasons); and cult smash The X-Files, which has never won for best drama (could it be Cancer Man’s work?). And consider this: The most adored sitcom of the ’90s, Seinfeld, nabbed just one statue for best Comedy Series in its eight years.

In fact, credibility increasingly lies with the Golden Globes; the former laughingstock has lately honored more artistic, of-the-moment television, including The Sopranos, Felicity‘s Keri Russell, and Sex and the City‘s Sarah Jessica Parker. Seems nearly everyone thinks the Emmys could use a jolt: ”There’s some great TV out there that’s not being recognized,” sighs Emmy-winning former Frasier writer Jack Burditt. ”The Emmys play it safe,” agrees Tony Krantz, co-chairman and CEO of Imagine Television, which produces Academy-neglected Sports Night and Felicity. ”There’s a huge opportunity to celebrate new blood in television, and it may be time to take a risk.”

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences just took such a step. Last month, it decided to allow Emmy judges to view all nominated programs on their home VCRs, similar to the Oscar-voting system. In past years, volunteer panels (drawn from ATAS’ 9,300 active members) were sequestered at a hotel each August to screen tapes for 24 to 48 hours, a process that many argue attracted few recruits — and most of them retiree types who favor traditional choices. ”The average age in those committees is older than the CBS demographic,” says The Last Don producer and judging vet Larry Sanitsky. ”By a lot.” Academy chairman and CEO Meryl Marshall dismisses any Demographic Bias Conspiracy but concedes, ”There’s so much production going on during the summer, [many members] couldn’t participate in the judging process. And we believe their input is critical to the outcome.”

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