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Will the Emmys evolve?

Each year, January and February bring an escalating rush of red carpet excitement, with the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards and Oscars.

Then comes September and little orphan Emmy.

Intended to serve as the standard-bearer for the opening of the fall TV season, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences awards are far removed from the convergent frenzy of other Hollywood self-love pageants.

But what if Emmy's isolation ended? After all, the traditional fall-to-spring TV season has been declared passe by at least one broadcast network and is little observed by cable networks.

Could an earlier Emmy ceremony juice viewership, which last year measured just under 18-million? That's compared with nearly 27-million viewers for this year's Golden Globes and 43-million-plus for the Oscars.

A springtime ceremony could benefit worthy but ratings-challenged shows that need a boost.

"Emmys have a noble history of saving shows," said Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys and host of GoldDerby.com, an awards prediction Web site.

All in the Family was mired in the ratings cellar after it debuted in January 1971. The Emmys were held in the spring that year, and the sitcom received the best comedy series award and the best new series trophy (no longer given), and it went on to become an invaluable part of America's culture.

Tonight, when the 56th annual Prime Time Emmy Awards are held, the critically lauded yet low-rated Fox sitcom Arrested Development could be the beneficiary. After evading cancellation, its best comedy series bid could draw audience attention to its charms.

Emmy's effect on endangered programs would be greater if the awards came earlier in the year, when they have a chance to affect viewership for struggling shows.

Those wary of change should consider the evidence: Until 1976, the awards were usually held no later than May, at the TV season's conclusion. They moved to September in 1977 after a split between East and West Coast factions of the TV academy.

The Los Angeles branch took control of the prime time awards, and change was afoot.

"Shifting from a (spring) retrospective to a (fall) preface probably made sense," said TV academy awards director John Leverence. "It helped brand the new Emmys as the fall kickoff and the (West Coast) academy as the organization that was going to do it that way."

Because politics and promotion are at the heart of Emmy timing, why not consider a change? The September-to-May TV model, although still dominant, is showing signs of stress.

Among broadcasters, Fox is leading the way to year-round original programming, prodded by its need to navigate the baseball playoffs, which usurp its first weeks of the fall season.

Other broadcasters have made some effort to offer fresh summer fare, although at this point it has generally been quick and cheap reality series.

For cable networks, summer has become a prime launching pad for flashy new series to entice viewers turned off by network repeats.

Some in the industry are open to the idea of an Emmy makeover.

"I do think the awards cycles for TV will have to change in order to match the new reality of what's happening on television," said filmmaker Gregory Nava, whose American Family: Journey of Dreams is a miniseries nominee.

The academy's rules "are set for the way things used to be, and that's obviously changing."

But many observers contend that TV's autumn rebirth and the September Emmys are entrenched for now.

"At the end of the day, the fall season is the kickoff season," said the academy's Leverence. "It's part of the calendar of this country: back to work, back to school, back to the TV set."

Emmy staff stand in the place of presenters on stage during preparations for the 56th annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Thursday. Organizers plan to put behind-the-scenes action out front for the awards airing tonight, with a glass-panel control room and two towering crane cameras built into the heart of the glittery stage.

At a glance

The 56th annual Prime Time Emmy Awards air at 8 tonight on WFTS-Ch. 28.

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