Television has never had such a sheer volume of programming — many would say great programming — but Emmy Awards voters are choosing not to spread the wealth.
The most marked development at Sunday's showcase of television's best was how many of the honorees had been honored before. Either Emmy voters like to reward consistency, or they didn't feel like making any bold statements in support of shows that could use the recognition.
The best drama series ("Mad Men") and best comedy ("30 Rock") were repeat winners. Best actor in a drama? Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad," just like last year. Best actor in a comedy? Alec Baldwin of "30 Rock," just like last year. Best actress in a drama? Glenn Close of "Damages," just like last year. Best reality series? "The Amazing Race," just like the last six years.
"Unbelievable," host Neil Patrick Harris said sardonically after "The Amazing Race" victory. "Upsets at every turn."
About the only upset was Tina Fey of "30 Rock" losing to Toni Collette of the Showtime series "United States of Tara" for best actress in a comedy series. Fey didn't leave empty-handed, however, since she is the creative force behind "30 Rock" and she won an award for her impersonation of Sarah Palin on "Saturday Night Live."
It left a wide array of popular and niche programming still seeking recognition from the Emmys — edgy shows such as "Dexter" or "Weeds," or more populist fare such as "The Office" or "The Mentalist." Some of television's most popular programs — "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives," "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars" — are starved for attention.
"It is an amazing time to work in TV," said "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner. "And, I know that everything is changing, but I'm not afraid of it because I feel like all these different media is just more choice and more entertainment. It's better for the viewers in the end and I'm glad to be a part of it."
Despite the familiarity, it didn't mean the winners weren't appreciative.
Fey, as she accepted the best comedy Emmy for "30 Rock" for the third year in a row, thanked top NBC Universal executives for "keeping us on the air even though we are so much more expensive than a talk show." The reference is to NBC airing "The Jay Leno Show" five nights a week in prime-time, a cost-savings move that has caused some restiveness in Hollywood's creative community.
Weiner, who also won a repeat honor in writing for a drama series for "Mad Men," said that "we worked very hard not to have it stink the second year."
Cranston seemed nonplussed by his second award as a meth-making teacher in "Breaking Bad."
"Lee Trevino was struck by lightning twice," he said. "Now I know how he feels."
Jon Stewart feigned nonchalance when his "The Daily Show" won for best variety show for the seventh straight year, and for best writing in the category. Accepting the trophy gave him the opportunity "to go backstage and watch the football game," he said. That would be Giants-Cowboys on NBC, whose executives probably appreciated the plug. (The Giants won with a 37-yard field goal as time ran out.)
The winners highlighted another trend in the fragmented television world: Except for Jon Cryer winning best supporting actor for a comedy series in TV's most popular comedy, CBS' "Two and Half Men," many awards went to programs with relatively small audiences.
Television's role as a communal gathering place is diminishing.
"I used to think that awards were just shallow tokens of momentary popularity, but now I realize they are the only true measure of a person's worth as a human being," Cryer joked. He saluted his co-star Charlie Sheen, who he said makes his work look deceptively easy. Sheen earned no trophy, however. Kristin Chenoweth did win, though, for best supporting actress for her comedy "Pushing Daisies." But the ABC show has been canceled.
"Thank you so much to the academy for recognizing a show that's no longer on the air," she told the Nokia Theatre audience in accepting the prize.
Host Harris moved the proceedings swiftly along, despite occasional self-conscious attempts to give viewers a backstage look at the innards of the show. Both Jeff Probst (Emmy-winning "Survivor" host) and Stewart complimented Harris onstage for the job he was doing.
Harris briefly sat in the audience for the announcement of the best supporting actor in a comedy award, which he lost to Cryer. Later, he jokingly made Cryer show the envelope to "prove" that he had won.
The TV academy, meanwhile, hoped to avoid an unwanted rerun of last year's awards show: paltry viewership. The 2008 ceremony was the least-watched ever with an audience of 12.3 million.
Associated Press Television Writer Lynn Elber contributed to this report.
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