TV's night of shameless self-promotion Emmys: Who wins is driven by Hollywood politics as much as by quality work.


The answer to virtually every question about the Emmy Award involves either self-promotion or Hollywood politics.

Why will Bryant Gumbel be the host of tonight's telecast of the "49th Annual Emmy Awards"?

Because the show is on CBS, and Gumbel is about to launch a high-priced newsmagazine on CBS this fall.

Why will one of tonight's production numbers be what the producers are calling "an entertaining look at the resurgence of spiritual programming on television"?

Because the show is on CBS, and CBS has the corner on prime-time religion with series like "Touched By An Angel."

Still, there's a higher Emmy goal than just promoting the network that has the telecast: promoting network television in general and heralding the official start of the new season.

Think of tonight's telecast (which will be seen by some 40 million viewers) as a gigantic, electronic pep rally on the eve of the home opener. It's the industry's way of saying, "Summer is officially over, and all of our glamorous stars are back from the Land of Hiatus. Come, settle down with your friends in front of the television."

Trying to pick Emmy winners is a fool's business. Victory is more a matter of the political mood of Hollywood than it is of excellence -- as fans of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street" have learned in recent years.

Still, the urge to try to out-psyche the industry folk is irresistible:

* Outstanding lead actress in a comedy series: I'm starting with this category because I think I know which way it will go.

The nominees are: Ellen DeGeneres, "Ellen" (ABC); Fran Drescher, "The Nanny" (CBS); Helen Hunt, "Mad About You" (NBC); Patricia Richardson, "Home Improvement" (ABC); and Cybill Shepherd, "Cybill" (CBS).

DeGeneres should win for bringing her character out as a lesbian last season. Not only did it take courage for her to do it, but she and the episode in which it was done were also terrific.

If DeGeneres doesn't win, I will never make another Emmy pick the rest of my life -- especially if the award goes to Helen Hunt for having a make-believe baby.

(You should know I vowed never to make another Emmy pick three years ago after Richard Mulligan won as best comedy actor. Can anyone remember the series he was in? Can anyone remember Richard Mulligan?)

* Outstanding lead actor in a comedy series: This one's a tougher call. The nominees are: Michael J. Fox, "Spin City" (ABC); Kelsey Grammer, "Frasier" (NBC); John Lithgow, "3rd Rock From The Sun" (NBC); Paul Reiser, "Mad About You" (NBC); and Garry Shandling, "The Larry Sanders Show" (HBO).

If there is justice, Shandling would win hands down. But he didn't win in 1996 or 1995 when he was also nominated. Those awards went to Lithgow and Grammer, respectively.

There is another factor this year that might also work against Shandling. The big story in July when nominations were announced was that, for the first time, a cable channel had beaten the broadcast networks in nominations as HBO nosed out NBC 90 to 89.

Then, two weeks ago, appeared the news that the academy had suddenly come up with a couple more nominations for NBC, and, lo, HBO was no longer the most nominated.

My reading of this strangeness: This is a network show and the networks don't want to be shown up by cable, even if HBO really is the place for the highest-quality television these days. At any rate, one of the most interesting storylines to follow tonight will be how cable fares vs. the networks.

As for best comedy actor, if not Shandling, then who? My pick is Michael J. Fox. The television industry is almost always happy to have someone from feature films return.

* Outstanding lead actress in a drama series: This is the weakest competition: Gillian Anderson, "The X-Files" (Fox); Roma Downey, "Touched By An Angel" (CBS); Christine Lahti, "Chicago Hope" (CBS); Julianna Margulies, "ER" (NBC); and Sherry Stringfield, "ER" (NBC).

Lahti's husband is a Hollywood director, and they have lots of friends. If she wins, that's the only possible explanation. Maybe Margulies and Stringfield, but only because NBC is said to be really pushing for an "ER" Emmy.

* Outstanding lead actor in a drama series: One of the toughest categories, with nominations for: Dennis Franz, "NYPD Blue" (ABC); Jimmy Smits, "NYPD Blue" (ABC); Sam Waterston, "Law & Order" (NBC); Anthony Edwards, "ER" (NBC); and David Duchovny, "The X-Files" (Fox).

I say Franz will win for the third time. Why? Because he seems to have no enemies in the industry, he's a great actor, and David Caruso was walking around Hollywood last summer telling interviewers how "NYPD Blue" was a single-star show in the early days and how he left because he got tired of carrying it. Could be Edwards, though, if NBC's "ER" campaign succeeds.

* Best drama: "ER" won last year. No reason why it shouldn't win again tonight, especially in a year when its producers are willing to take the lunatic plunge into a live broadcast Sept. 25 to bring some excitement to premiere week on NBC.

* Best comedy: "Frasier" won the last three years, which is astonishing to me. But I can't give a reason why it shouldn't win again. Unless the Hollywood community decides to celebrate "Seinfeld" for driving salaries to new highs.

'Emmy Awards'

When: 8 p.m.-11:10 p.m. today

Where: CBS (WJZ, Channel 13)

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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