CONSIDER this: The best program on television last season, far and away, was "The Civil War," the 11-hour historical documentary that ran on PBS. Yet it is not possible for that program to receive any recognition on Sunday night's telecast of the Emmy awards.
As much as anything, that is emblematic of what is wrong with the Emmys, why they seem to be on their way to becoming the "Irrelevant Awards."
"The Simpsons" is another case in point. The best comedy on television can't win the Emmy as the best comedy because it's an animated show. Whatever the rationale about categories and procedures, the bottom line is that just doesn't make any sense.
As for "The Civil War," the executives of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which puts on this affair, say that the producers of that program only submitted it for two awards -- Outstanding Informational Series and Individual Achievement in Informational Programming. In Academy voting, it received nominations in those categories, both of which will be handed out during the non-televised awards on Saturday.
Perhaps "The Civil War" should have been nominated in more categories -- and maybe it shouldn't be up to the producers to nominate themselves -- but in fact there is no big marquee category for a show like this because it's not a comedy or a drama. Though it was the best show on television last season, even if it was nominated in every category for which it was eligible, it would still be relegated to the second class, non-televised, awards. The same place the animated "Simpsons" finds itself.
The problems with "The Civil War" and "The Simpsons" are only the tip of the Emmy-sinking iceberg. Even without such ridiculous structural mistakes, this year's Emmys would be a lackluster affair. There is no chance for that momentum-building large haul of Emmys that might help push an innovative new show up in the ratings. That's mainly because there are not many innovative new shows on the air.
The shows with the most nominations, 13, are entrenched stalwarts "Cheers," "L.A. Law" and "Murphy Brown." The one show that deserves a big Emmy spin is "Northern Exposure," but it has a paltry two nominations mainly because it was on last summer and then off again until spring, so it t develop its momentum too late to generate votes.
One show that deserved a bigger Emmy boost is NBC's commendable "Law & Order," which only garnered a nomination for Michael Moriarity for best lead actor in a drama. Why was it virtually ignored? Because it runs against a Emmy voters favorite, "thirtysomething," a problem that plagues a number of other Emmy-deserving shows, such as "Knots Landing," which is up against "L.A. Law."
The whole nominating process is clearly screwed up. HBO can flood Academy members with tapes of the tepid "Josephine Baker Story" and wind up with no less than 12 nominations.
Then the winners are picked by the so-called Blue Ribbon Panels, consisting of Academy members with nothing better to do than watch nominated episodes on the weekend of Aug. 10 and 11.
The Academy ought to reverse the process -- have smaller committees handle the nominations, then let the entire membership vote for the winners. It should also do away with the comedy and drama distinction, a blurry line these days anyway. "Northern Exposure" is a drama? Must be, that's what they called "Moonlighting." Besides, the Oscars don't need such categories to judge movies, why does TV?
And a lot of problems would go away if one new award were instituted -- Best Program of the Year, a category that could pit "The Civil War" against "Northern Exposure," "Cheers" and a high class miniseries like "Separate But Equal." It would top off the evening with an award the equal of the Oscars' Best Picture.
The Emmys are further plagued by the Academy's decision to follow the all-American path to the biggest bucks possible. These were put up by the Fox network that sees the Emmy telecast as one of its tickets to the big time. So the awards will be on Channel 45 (WBFF) Sunday at 8 p.m., lasting three hours or so.
The problem is that every year the awards have been on Fox, the ratings have been terrible. What used to be a big TV event is now a small footnote. Hey, Fox has some good shows, but day-in, day-out, it does not have the audience needed to give the Emmys the kind of promotion it needs to make it into a big event.
The Big Three networks wanted changes in the show, mainly fewer awards. The Fox offer seemed like leverage. But by the time the contract comes up again, so few people will be watching the awards telecast that the Big Three networks might not be interested.
Maybe the Emmys will end up a new channel -- the Awards Channel, all awards all the time. The Emmys, the Oscars, the People's Choice, the Country Music Hall of Fame Touchdown Club, All American Teen-age Yugoslavia Pageant . . .
With that thought in mind, here's some predictions for a few of the top categories:
Outstanding Comedy Series: "Cheers," "Designing Women," "The Golden Girls," "Murphy Brown," "The Wonder Years." Look for "Murphy Brown" to repeat as champ in a category that desperately needs some new blood.
Outstanding Drama Series: "China Beach," "L.A. Law," "Northern Exposure," "Quantum Leap," "thirtysomething." Depends a lot on the episode screened by the voting panel, but "China Beach" and "thirtysomething" could split the sympathy vote and let "Northern Exposure" wind up with the statuette it deserves.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy: Ted Danson, "Cheers;" Craig T. Nelson, "Coach;" Richard Mulligan, "Empty Nest;" Burt Reynolds, "Evening Shade;" John Goodman, "Roseanne." Goodman deserves this, but Academy members love it when movie stars do TV so they'll give it to Reynolds.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama: Peter Falk, "Columbo;" James Earl Jones, "Gabriel's Fire;" Michael Moriarity, "Law and Order;" Scott Bakula, "Quantum Leap;" Kyle MacLachlan, "Twin Peaks." MacLachlan ought to get it, but it will be between stage types Moriarity and Jones, with Jones getting the nod.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy: Kirstie Alley, "Cheers;" Blair Brown, "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd;" Delta Burke, "Designing Women;" Betty White, "The Golden Girls;" Candice Bergen, "Murphy Brown." The actors voting for this one will give it to Burke just to stick it to the producers who boss them around.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama: Dana Delany, "China Beach;" Angela Lansbury, "Murder, She Wrote;" Patricia Wettig, "thirtysomething;" Sharon Gless, "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill." Give it to Lansbury.
And if you're the betting type, it's probably safe to put your money on "The Civil War" to edge out "Entertainment Tonight" and "Unsolved Mysteries" as the Outstanding Informational Series. But you never know with the Emmys.