Ban on Emmy-Nominated Tapes Angers Media

Imagine if a few months before the Academy Awards, all the best picture nominees were pulled from the theaters. They weren't available on DVD, television, or cable on demand. Nothing. The pre-Oscar buzz would shrivel, and none of the Oscar pools and predictions could get off the ground.

A comparable situation exists on a much smaller scale at the Daytime Emmy Awards (search).

Journalists are complaining that access to tapes of Emmy-nominated performances has been shut off, and the National Television Academy (search) won't even let them know which specific episodes are being judged.

"This is a media organization banning the media from seeing what they do when they bestow a media award," said Tom O'Neil, who runs the Web site, a repository for news, gossip and predictions for entertainment awards shows.

The head of the committee that instituted the ban conceded it was done because some academy members were annoyed at previous years' stories written about the awards, but characterized the decision as innocuous. Few people besides O'Neil care, said David Ashbrock, chairman of the awards committee.

"This is not some big, outlandish, all-holds-barred kind of restriction," he said.

O'Neil has an obvious self-interest: the most popular feature on his Web site has experts predict the outcome of awards show contests. (This reporter's annual Grammy Awards predictions are posted on the site.)

But the magazine Soap Opera Weekly also discontinued its annual Emmys prediction article last year when the ban took effect, said Mark McGarry, the magazine's news editor.

"It's hard to do the predictions when you don't know the work," McGarry said.

O'Neil said he used to watch the submitted tapes at the NATAS office and, before last year's ban, several other journalists joined him.

Many people assume that the Emmy votes are simply popularity contests. Instead, voters are sent tapes of one or two particular episodes of a show and asked to make their judgments based on what they see.

For years, soap opera star Susan Lucci submitted tapes that many critics felt didn't represent her best work, enabling her to pile up her infamous streak of 18 best actress nominations without a win. That was different in 1999, and after O'Neil saw the tape, he predicted it was the year she would finally win. He was right.

Academy members are angry at journalists for pointing out flaws that affected how votes were cast. In 2002, the chances of "As the World Turns" to win best daytime drama were hurt when voters were sent fuzzy videotapes, O'Neil said. A year later, the tape submitted for best actress nominee Michelle Stafford was missing a key scene.

"We didn't think we were well-served by it because there was negative press," said Ashbrock, a television news director in Cincinnati. "It was more about the process and the contest."

After not allowing access to the tapes last year, "we found that it really didn't make a whole lot of difference," he said. "We got the same amount of press whether we had people see the tapes or not."

Other awards shows, like the prime-time Emmys and the Oscars, make it easy for journalists to see nominated work. Some record companies release discs of Grammy-nominated musicbeforef that awards show.

Peter Price, president and CEO of the National Television Academy, said he had suggested the academy freely send out tapes when he took over the organization a few years ago. His awards committee felt differently after that was tried, he said, and he can't overrule their decision.

It would seem the Daytime Emmys would want to do all it could to increase buzz, not muzzle it.

Last year, the show's audience of 8.4 million was the lowest since the Daytime Emmys hit prime-time in 1991. Its peak was 22 million in 1993, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Lucci's victory cost the show the most compelling ongoingstory linee it had to attract casual fans. And since talk show legend Oprah Winfrey no longer submits her show for nomination because it was winning too much, some of the air has drained from that competition, too.

Several Daytime Emmy voters annoyed by the withheld tapes have already offered to slip O'Neil some of theirs. Many of them won't be able to resist gossiping about who will win or lose, he said.

That would put them in violation of anaffidavitt they signed not to discuss the voting process. O'Neil threatened to take such information to CBS, suggesting the network remove any affected categories for fear of violating FCC regulations.

"If I have to shut down this show in order to open them up in the future, I will consider doing that," he said.

Ashbrock said he hoped the academy judges would abide by the rules, and that O'Neil would cool down.

He said he promised that the committee would reconsider its ban when it holds its next meeting on May 6 — two weeks before the awards are given out in the televised ceremony from New York's Radio City Music Hall.

Even if the decision were reversed then, O'Neil said it would give journalists little time to see the tapes and write about them. Ashbrock said he doesn't think that's the case, and he's sticking to his decision.

"It's appropriate to discuss it in this way," he said.