Think of it as a giant pep rally on the eve of the big game.
Only this year, there's no big game.
Traditionally, the Emmy Awards telecast announced the start of network premiere week and the new fall season. The television industry understood synergy before synergy was cool.
But this year, for the first time in network history, there is no premiere week, and the new fall series won't start arriving until October after the summer Olympics have run their course on NBC. The fall season is still flying well below most viewers' radar despite the networks' endless on-air promotion.
Yet, the show must go on. And, while tonight's "52nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards" telecast on ABC will probably have one of its smallest national audiences in years, it is still an important event, as well as one that features more local contenders than ever before.
The Emmy has the status of a Pulitzer Prize in the newspaper business. It's the one television industry award with enough clout to keep quality work on the air even when it is not cost-effective by the standards of corporate bean counting. Without big wins on Emmy night, neither "Hill Street Blues" nor "Cheers" would have made it beyond the first season.
"The Emmys helped immensely," said James Burrows, the co-creator of "Cheers." "A lot of people hadn't watched the show at that point, and we were vindicated by the Emmys. With the awards, the show really started to go."
Steven Bochco said he witnessed the same effect for his groundbreaking "Hill Street" cop drama: "Winning eight Emmys that first season really validated us."
Tonight's marquee matchup features the best two dramas on television - HBO's "The Sopranos," about a New Jersey crime family, and NBC's "The West Wing," about a fictional first family. Each arrives at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium tonight with 18 nominations, the most of any other show. Their success means quality dramas will still get made despite the fact that most will lose money for the networks that air them.
The Baltimore story line at the telecast also features quality drama. "The Corner," the landmark HBO miniseries about one Baltimore family's struggle to escape the world of drugs in a neighborhood devastated by them, has four major nominations: Outstanding Miniseries, Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or Movie, Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries or Movie, and Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries or Movie.
Not only was it filmed in Baltimore, but most of the individual nominees also live in the area: director Charles Dutton, casting director Pat Moran, and co-writer and co-executive producer David Simon, who based the miniseries on a nonfiction book he wrote with Edward Burns.
In the writing category, Simon and David Mills, who co-wrote "The Corner," are up against Tom Fontana, Eric Overmyer and James Yoshimura for their screenplay of "Homicide: the Movie." Not only was the "Homicide" movie also filmed in Baltimore, but the series to which it brought closure was also based on a book by Simon, who served as writer-producer on the NBC drama.
Simon said he called Fontana, his old boss, on the day the nominations were announced and said, "Let me get this straight: I have to root against a show I worked on for four years that was based on my book?"
Handicapping the local entries, "The Corner" should win as best miniseries, and Dutton will probably win for best directing. In terms of writing, Simon and Mills deserve the award more than Fontana, Overmyer and Yoshimura. But I think neither team will get it.
"The Corner" and "Homicide" are up against HBO's "If These Walls Could Talk 2" and "RKO 281" for the writing award. One is about Hollywood ("RKO 281"), and the other has enormous industry support with stars Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche and Sharon Stone campaigning endlessly for the film about three lesbian relationships.
I think what Fontana once called "the company-town, chamber-of-commerce factor" will kick in at the expense of the Baltimore entries. Pat Moran's work on "The Corner" is up against the same two films, and, even though she deserves the award, I will be surprised if she gets it.
Garry Shandling will be host for the telecast, which executive producer Don Mischer promises will have no phony overriding theme or silly musical production numbers.
"Because we are lucky enough to have Garry Shandling, there will be much more comedy in this year's show than ever before," Mischer said.
"First of all, Garry's very funny. And, secondly, he's really quick on his feet, which is extremely helpful with a show like this when you're on the air live for three hours. We're really excited to have him," Mischer added.
And is Shandling excited to be had?
"As you know from talking to me over the years, I place awards in their proper perspective. If I may repeat something my shrink said to me many, many times: 'Don't pull me into this.' "
For Shandling, that's excited.
What: "The 52nd Annual Primetime Emmy Awards"
When: 8 to 11 tonight.By
Where: WMAR (Channel 2).