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By Devin D. O'Leary

AUGUST 2, 1999:  The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in Hollywood announced the 51st Annual Primetime Emmy Award nominees last Thursday. The actual statues won't be handed out until Sept. 12 -- which gives networks a full month and a half to crow about their "Emmy nominated" shows before one in five of them becomes a big fat loser.

Cable TV continued to beat the networks like the dogs that they are, with HBO's much praised mob drama "The Sopranos" landing a whopping 16 Emmy nods. Perennial Emmy faves "ER," "Law & Order," "NYPD Blue" and "The Practice" soaked up most of the rest of the dramatic nominations.

"The Sopranos" has been basking in some excellent word-of-mouth and even landed a recent cover story in Entertainment Weekly. The show stands a good chance of pulling an upset in September against some well-past-their-prime competitors. "ER," "Law & Order," "NYPD Blue" and "The Practice" have all struggled with see-saw seasons. The departure of major cast members and a host of behind-the-scenes shuffles have left each show with a mixed bag of good and bad episodes. "NYPD Blue," for example, weathered the departure of Jimmy Smits and the introduction of Ricky (sorry, Rick) Schroder. Though Rick proved his worth, the writing for the other characters suffered. "ER," meanwhile, seriously floundered in the wake of George Clooney's exit, turning in its least compelling season to date.

James Gandolfini from "The Sopranos" will go head-to-head with Dennis Franz ("NYPD Blue"), Dylan McDermott ("The Practice"), Jimmy Smits ("NYPD Blue") and Sam Waterston ("Law & Order") for Lead Actor in a Drama Series. If "The Sopranos" doesn't sweep, this could be Smits' departing gift.

For Lead Actress in a Drama Series, look for Gillian Anderson ("The X-Files"), Lorraine Bracco ("The Sopranos"), Edie Falco ("The Sopranos"), Christine Lahti ("Chicago Hope") and Julianna Margulies ("ER") in a five-way catfight. "The Sopranos'" double dip nomination gives it the edge, however.

In the comedy series categories, "Ally McBeal," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Frasier," and "Friends" captured expected nominations, but were joined by another cable upstart, HBO's "Sex and the City." "Ally McBeal" and "Frasier" have been coasting on fumes, quite frankly, and the recent disclosure that NBC is paying $5 million an episode for "Friends" next season could spark some jealousy in Hollywood. Expect the good-natured "Raymond" to pull ahead of the pack.

Michael J. Fox ("Spin City"), Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier"), John Lithgow ("3rd Rock from the Sun"), Paul Reiser ("Mad About You") and Ray Romano ("Everybody Loves Raymond") are competing for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series. Cynics might say that Fox's recent disclosure of an incurable illness could give him the sentimental edge. Cynics might be right.

For Lead Actress in a Comedy Series we've got Jenna Elfman ("Dharma & Greg"), Calista Flockheart ("Ally McBeal"), Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond"), Helen Hunt ("Mad About You") and Sarah Jessica Parker ("Sex and the City"). Hunt's already got an Oscar, so she won't get it.

The most amusing nomination in the entire list is for Guest Actor in a Comedy Series -- William Shatner as The Big Giant Head on "3rd Rock from the Sun."

The 51st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast live Sept. 12 on FOX.


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