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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The U.S. television industry on Sunday hands out its highest honors, the prime time Emmy Awards, facing a growing conundrum.
How do you get millions of viewers to watch the party celebrating the best of TV, when the best is seen only by a minority?
The satirical comedy "30 Rock" starring Tina Fey and cable television's highly praised 1960s period drama "Mad Men" lead the field for Emmy glory in a three-hour ceremony in Los Angeles that will be shown live on the CBS network.
Despite an expanded list of nominees in the main categories this year to include fresh faces like the irreverent Fox cartoon series "Family Guy," few of the expected winners on Sunday have mass appeal.
Last year's best drama winner and this year's front-runner "Mad Men" has an audience of about 2 million on cable channel AMC, while "30 Rock" draws about 6 million for NBC. By contrast, reality-show nominee "American Idol" averaged 26 million viewers last season.
The winners are chosen by voting among some 10,000 members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
"The Emmys are trying to serve two masters right now. It is a tough balancing act," said Scott Robson, editor in chief of AOL Television.
Last year's Emmy Awards telecast had the lowest ratings in the show's 60-year history, attracting just 12.2 million viewers.
"If you are an average TV viewer and you are more focused on 'American Idol' or a broad comedy like 'Two and a Half Men', it definitely feels like the Emmy awards show is moving further away from you," said Robson.
In one of several online polls asking who "should" win, rather than who will win on Sunday, AOL respondents chose the Fox medical series "House" for best drama and its star Hugh Laurie as best dramatic actor. Bryan Cranston, star of little-seen "Breaking Bad," is tipped to win the latter category for a second year.
Asked to "turn the Emmys upside down" by voting for the stars and shows "overlooked and snubbed," visitors to Entertainment Weekly's website EW.com chose HBO's "True Blood" for best drama and NBC's "Chuck" for best comedy series. Neither are Emmy-nominated.
Efforts by the Television Academy and CBS to boost ratings for the telecast by focusing more on stars and popular shows and dropping some live trophy presentations were ditched last month after an uproar.
The plan would have most affected TV writers and cable channels like HBO, which has a leading 99 nominations.
Instead, producers of Sunday's awards will acknowledge top-rated shows with a review of best moments. The ceremony will bow to the mass appeal of dance with a segment featuring "Dancing With The Stars" professionals Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Karina Smirnoff.
"I think there is a panic within the broadcast side of TV over cable shows winning all the awards, and network TV wanting to look relevant," said Tom O'Neil of awards website www.The Envelope.com.
"But the Emmys should be about the best TV. Period. Not the highest-rated TV. Their job is not to pander to ratings or worry about slighted TV shows and stars," O'Neil said.
That being said O'Neil expects few new faces in Sunday's roster of winners.
"I think we will definitely see repeats of the best drama and comedy winners ('Mad Men' and '30 Rock') and we risk seeing repeats of all of the top winners for the first time in Emmy history," O'Neil said.
The disconnect between Emmy winners and the wider public has led to a surge of interest in the red carpet parade of stars before the ceremony, particularly on websites, said Sibyl Goldman, vice president of Yahoo! Entertainment.
"There is more interest than ever. You have to know what happened, but you don't have to watch the show to know what happened," said Goldman, adding that her staff uses search data culled from Yahoo! to quickly identify buzzworthy moments.
"If the show is not going out live, by the time you get ready to watch the show on the U.S. West Coast you can see all the news and photos on the website," she said.
Instant news and pictures, along with the ability of fans to react, vote and share opinions on the Web, makes it "more dynamic to partake of that content in real time online," Goldman said.
Editing by Eric Walsh