March 09, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Acting on a flood of complaints from its members, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has announced it will shake up the way its Emmy Awards are chosen this year — a move that could result in more statuettes for deserving contenders like ”The Sopranos” and fewer trophies for questionable repeat winners.

Previously, winners were picked during special screening weekends at a Los Angeles hotel. ATAS members were invited to attend the time-consuming sessions, but TV’s pick of the litter (Steven Bochco, David E. Kelley, and John Wells among them) were seldom available because of their strict schedules. As a result, the voting groups were typically small in number and made up of semiretired members who weren’t necessarily in touch with current industry trends, explains one past participant.

The problem became especially apparent during last year’s ceremony — when such repeat winners as Kristen Johnston and John Lithgow filed onstage to collect their Emmys amid a growing chorus of groans from the audience, while freshman superstars ”The Sopranos” were virtually snubbed (only Edie Falco won for Best Actress). ”We talked about the fact that when you look around the room at the Emmys on awards night, you see a lot of people who often are unable to vote due to their schedule,” says ATAS chairperson Meryl Marshall.

That’s why ATAS is enacting a new system for home voting. Here’s how it’ll work: Nominations will be announced in July, and in August members will be sent screener tapes and given 10 days to make their at-home selections for the prime-time Emmy categories (the creative arts portion, which primarily honors behind-the-scenes work, will still be decided by the special screening weekends). Participants will be asked to sign an affidavit, promising that they have screened all the tapes.

”We believe by giving [members] the opportunity to judge at home, it will increase the likelihood that the same people who appear that night — both on camera and in the audience — will have participated in the selection process,” explains Marshall. She adds that ATAS won’t know until after the Emmys are presented in September whether the group will ”expand [the new voting method] to the creative arts, just continue it for the prime-time awards, or simply decide that it failed.” You can bet Dennis Franz will be holding his breath about that result.

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