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New rules make Emmy race harder to call

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Tony Soprano and his thugs will be back, looking to grab a piece of the action, and The West Wing politicians will make one last bid for reelection when the Emmy Award nominations are handed out Thursday.

Both are likely to share the spotlight with a fresh crop of TV doctors, firefighters, a kid named Chris, and an ex-con named Earl, thanks to Emmy rule changes aimed at giving newcomers and underdogs a better shot at US television's highest honors. The winners will be announced August 27 in Los Angeles.

Even more than last year, when ABC's hot new Desperate Housewives clinched nominations for three of its stars and freshman castaway thriller Lost went on to claim the prize for best drama, this year's Emmy race is seen as wide open.

"The key story this year is the Emmy nominations should not look like a TV rerun," said Tom O'Neil, columnist for the Los Angeles Times entertainment award Web site TheEnvelope.com. "This new nominating system hopes to welcome in new blood from that second tier of TV channels like FX, UPN, WB, and others that have not been represented strongly in the past."

As Ray Richmond of the Hollywood Reporter writes: "Hope suddenly springs eternal in the Emmy world for the distinguished, the disenfranchised and the just plain dissed."

That makes it tougher to handicap a process that has long favored veteran shows and past nominees over newer prime-time offerings, though some perennial shoo-ins are expected to return.

HBO mob series The Sopranos, a longtime Emmy darling that won for best drama in 2004 but sat out last year's contest due to a production hiatus, is heavily favored to muscle its way back into the race for the 58th annual awards.

And some experts give White House saga The West Wing, a four-time winner for top drama, a good chance of making the cut one last time for its critically acclaimed but low-rated final season on NBC, which drew to a close in May.

But ABC hospital hit Grey's Anatomy, which just completed its first full season, also is heavily favored to break into the pack just as that same network's Lost did last year.

And FX cable drama Rescue Me, starring Dennis Leary as an emotionally troubled firefighter, is given strong odds to snag that network's first nomination for best drama series.

Even the Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica remake has drawn mentions from several critics as a possible candidate for best drama, though neither that network nor science fiction in general have ever garnered much Emmy attention.

CROWDED COMEDY RACE

The Emmy battle over laughs is even more of a horse race.

Newer NBC comedies My Name is Earl and The Office, Fox's recently canceled Emmy winner Arrested Development, and UPN family sitcom Everybody Hates Chris are all seen as front-runners, bucking Emmy voters' historical tendency to ignore younger shows, canceled shows, and smaller networks.

Past comedy champion Will & Grace, which ended its NBC run this spring, could also return to the nominees circle once more, along with Desperate Housewives, though many critics feel Housewives lost some of its luster last season when critical reviews turned sour.

Other comedies cited as long shots with a realistic chance this year are HBO's cynical Hollywood satire Entourage and even ABC's short-lived Sons & Daughters.

Under this year's new nominating system, members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences choose 10 finalists for best comedy and best drama series on the basis of votes cast for all eligible candidates in each category. The field is then winnowed to five nominees by a blue-ribbon panel of judges who review videotapes of their best work.

A similar process is used to cull five nominees from the top 15 vote-getters in the categories for best lead actor and actress in a comedy and drama series.

O'Neil said critics are hoping the changes will finally reward some stars they see as long overdue for recognition, especially Lauren Graham of the WB's Gilmore Girls. "If she doesn't get nominated this year...TV critics of America will torch the academy," he joked.

Further complicating the Emmy picture this year is the proliferation of hour-long shows that mix elements of comedy and drama--such as Housewives, Rescue Me, and Grey's Anatomy--a factor that can sometimes work against a show's Emmy chances.

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