'Game of Thrones,' 'Veep' defend Emmy crowns amid change

Television has become a Wild West of adventurous channels and booming digital platforms, with intriguing new shows pouring into its wide-open spaces.

But TV's chief currency remains the continuing series, which feeds into Emmy Awards repetition and statistics like these: "Modern Family" and "Frasier" each own five top comedy trophies, with a quartet of awards held by "Mad Men" and three other dramas.

Relief from this eye-glazing "Groundhog Day" sameness, however, may be at hand when the 68th prime-time Emmys air Sunday on ABC (8 p.m. EDT). Two big changes in TV academy rules could combine to bring upsets to a field of contenders from broadcasting, cable and streaming services, including Netflix and Amazon.

More to watch for in the ceremony, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel:

— Whether the Emmys will continue to outpace the much-criticized Academy Awards when it comes to diversity. Each of the major acting categories includes at least one minority nominee, including last year's best-drama actress winner, Viola Davis.

— How much of an irresistible topic the incendiary presidential campaign will prove for presenters and winners. With Kimmel, the question is how many punchlines it provides.

— Whether the broadcast networks can achieve any reversal of their dwindling share of Emmy gold. Network shows that once dominated the awards have been reduced largely to onlookers, especially in the top drama series category where they've been shut out of the nominations since a nod for "The Good Wife" in 2011. A salute, however, to public broadcaster PBS' "Downton Abbey," a contender for its sixth and final season.

Epic fantasy "Game of Thrones" and biting political satire "Veep" are poised to repeat as top series for the second consecutive year, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a favorite to earn her fifth best-actress trophy for her role in the White House romp.

But they've got serious competition, including on the drama side from freshman "Mr. Robot" and an invigorated "The Americans," and from sophomore sitcom "black-ish" — just some of potential beneficiaries of revisions in Emmy voting.

The streaming services, which have begun to make inroads with shows including "Transparent," might also reap more honors for shows including "House of Cards."

This year, the academy revised how votes are cast and counted, switching from a ranking and points system to letting voters simply check off their top choice. That sharpens the selection process and perhaps affects past winners who managed to collect enough second-place votes to overcome the competition.

In another change, this one implemented last year, voting was expanded from blue-ribbon panels to — depending on the award — giving substantially more or all of the academy's 20,000-plus members the chance to vote for finalists.

Best actors, for example, had been decided by panels made up of 75 to 250 people in the academy's acting branch, said Tom O'Neil, author of "The Emmys" reference book and editor of Gold Derby, an awards handicapping website.

Now, all 2,500 branch members can jump in if so inclined — but they have to agree to view all episodes in contention before voting, as the panels did. In the program categories, including best comedy and drama, all academy members are eligible to vote.

Last year's "Game of Thrones" top-drama victory might have been a sign of the difference the new approach made: Voters in the past have been stubbornly resistant to honoring fantasy or sci-fi shows, with "Lost" a rare exception. The rules change could also make hacking thriller "Mr. Robot" a "Game of Thrones" spoiler. It can claim both momentum, with this year's Golden Globe for best drama series in hand, and thematic timeliness.

But the possibility that not all new voters are doing their homework by faithfully watching DVDs of the nominees is cause for concern, said awards maven O'Neil, giving buzz the potential to sway uninformed voters. In the 1960s, he recalled, the TV academy was forced to call in respected writer-producer Rod Serling ("The Twilight Zone") to overhaul a voting approach that had similarly veered off course.

"I'm looking for any upset by an underdog that tells me that the integrity of the award is still intact," O'Neil said. "If not, if it's just all the popular stuff that prevails, then the Emmys are in trouble."





Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber@ap.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.