Call it the era of awards ad nauseam.

Fall is awards season for an entertainment industry that just can't seem to congratulate itself enough in front of a television audience. MTV will kick it off Thursday with its Video Music Awards, followed by the Latin Grammys Tuesday and the Primetime Emmys the next week.

"There are so many now that one's really got to laugh at a lot of them," said Robert Thompson, pop culture and media professor at Syracuse University. "You could have the Awards Show Channel on cable that could give awards 24 hours a day."

Only journalists are rumored to give themselves more awards than Hollywood types — but so far, those ceremonies aren't broadcast in front of a live, national audience.

Though the Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, and Tonys are widely considered the benchmark honors for actors and musicians, there has been a staggering increase in televised ceremonies. A tally by Variety magazine found a whopping 4,025 entertainment awards were handed out in 564 separate ceremonies last year. By June 2001 — the last date for which data is available — 3,124 awards had already been presented at 200 events, according to the magazine.

Performers can receive anything from a Dove Christian Music Award to an American Film Institute trophy. (AFI announced this week that it's adding an award show to the lengthening list.) Other possible honors: an MTV Movie golden bucket of popcorn, a Teen Choice surfboard, a People's Choice sculpture engraved with clapping hands, a Black Entertainment Television shooting star, and a Country Music Association rocket-shaped glass tower.

"[Stars] hunger for critical acclaim and artistic respect. Awards really feed into that," said Los Angeles Times pop culture and music writer Geoff Boucher, who called the explosion of ceremonies "ludicrous."

Boucher said the phenomenon isn't just about celebrities patting themselves on the back. Awards shows are a smart business for television.

"If you are a TV producer and you want great ratings by having celebrities, you create an awards show and these people come for free," he said. "It's the only way you can get all these people to show up on the same night. It's a lot of bang for your buck."

The public's insatiable hunger for the rich and famous has made it possible to fill the airwaves with these shows virtually all the time. So have programs such as Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood, as well as the E! channel and a multitude of celebrity-oriented Web sites.

Thompson said reality TV has also fed into the growth of awards shows. Like Survivor and The Real World, an awards ceremony is a staged situation, where participants respond somewhat spontaneously to what unfolds as the camera rolls.

"Someone is going to win and the other nominees are going to get voted off the island," Thompson said. "They're short, ad-hoc reality shows. We're learning how much drama can be milked out of these pseudo-events."

The diverse live performances they feature make them one of the last surviving forms of variety show on the air. They also honor those who might have been forgotten in the four old-guard ceremonies and expose the public to less-mainstream types of entertainment.

Some experts say the rising number of Hollywood honors might cheapen the value of entertainment awards and make audiences cynical about their merit.

"Every new one waters down the rest," Boucher said. "I'm waiting for the day when someone gets up there and forgets which one they're being handed."

Thompson doesn't think there's an imminent end to the madness.

"We're going to see a lot more of these," he predicted. "I don't think we've reached saturation yet."

After all, there's a reason most other industries don't televise their awards ceremonies. The ratings game and the starry-eyed public can explain the phenomenon in part, but awards shows wouldn't be skyrocketing without the larger-than-life celebrity egos driving them.

"You hand these people these trophies and they see their own reflections in them," Boucher said. "They love that."