Before dawn Thursday, in the northernmost neck of Hollywood, "Scandal" star Kerry Washington and "Parks and Recreation" regular Nick Offerman will hold spellbound for four minutes a theater full of celebrity suck-up-show hosts and ambitious young industry assistants as they announce nominees for the prime-time Emmy Awards.
You can watch at home on "Good Morning America," "Today," "CBS This Morning" and other infotainment shows too obscure to mention.
When the two actors have finished naming this year's contenders in the glam categories, the ambitious young industry assistants will grab the full list of nominees in more than 100 categories, dash out the auditorium door flapping the list - looking like Nancy Grace on a verdict-reading day - and contact their bosses on their mobile devices.
As news of the full list of nominees begins to filter through Hollywood, publicists with nominated clients will begin to issue the spontaneous reactions carefully crafted in advance. Those not nominated will fling themselves back on their beds - remember, it'll still be about 6 a.m. in Dottyville on the Pacific - and tear the pillows. Excepting, of course, "Sons of Anarchy" creator Kurt Sutter, who will, as he does every year, begin tweeting obscenities about the Television Academy, which bestows the awards, and its members.
Leading up to this most welcomed and dreaded day of the year, there are many burning questions on the minds of serious students of television:
Will any drama series be nominated that can loosen the stranglehold four-time best drama series "Mad Men" has on the hottest trophy?
Will any comedy be nominated that stands a chance of knocking two-time best comedy "Modern Family" off its throne?
Is there any reality competition series on the horizon that can keep "The Amazing Race" from winning a ninth time?
Will any variety series be nominated that can end "The Daily Show's" nine-year winning streak?
Will anyone be nominated who can beat "Survivor" host Jeff Probst in the race for best reality series host - or, as "Dancing With the Stars" host Tom Bergeron likes to call it, the Jeff Probst Award? (Put your money on "no." Probst has won every year since the category was created.)
Will the academy continue to allow the shameless jumping of shows from category to category, like the chamois of the Alps leaping from crag to crag, that appears to be epidemic this year?
Emmy Awards history could be made in September, should AMC's '60s-set Madison Avenue show "Mad Men" win again for best drama series. It's a foregone conclusion that the show will snag another nomination Thursday in the category it's won for four consecutive years. At four wins, it's tied with "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "The West Wing" for most in that competition. Should "Mad Men" make it five, it would set a record for most wins by a drama series. ("Frasier" hit five in the best-comedy competition in 1998.)
Last year there was some hope, among those who think the Emmys are getting a tad repetitious, that Martin Scorsese's lavish Prohibition-era drama on HBO, "Boardwalk Empire," might take the prize from "Mad Men." After all, "Boardwalk" already had mopped up best-drama-series wins at the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards before the Emmy ceremony. But on Emmy night the statuette went again to AMC's orgy of product placement, deliberate pacing and verisimilitudinous touches.
This year, some think Showtime's freshman drama "Homeland" is most likely to topple "Mad Men." Like "Boardwalk Empire" last year, "Homeland" is Emmy-eligible for the first time and already has been festooned with best-drama trophies at the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice Television Awards. It even won a George Foster Peabody Award for distinguished achievement and meritorious service.
PBS's "Downton Abbey" might also make things tougher on "Mad Men" this year. The sumptuous, crunchy-gravel British drama, named best miniseries or movie at last year's Emmys, this year is submitted for consideration as a drama series. "It's this year's 'Upstairs/Downstairs,' " says Tom O'Neil, creator of the all-things-trophy-show website GoldDerby. He's referring to the wildly popular 1970s PBS crunchy-gravel Brit drama the academy also shuffled back and forth between the best-drama-series and best-miniseries (called "limited series" back then) categories at Emmy time - and which won each year, regardless.
"The deep, dark secret is, [Emmy] voters are shameless snobs and elitists, and British things win all the time," O'Neil noted. " 'Downton Abbey' has the most snob appeal of all the shows in this category."
All that star wattage in the best-drama race appears to have frightened the decision makers behind FX's drama series "American Horror Story." After competing in the drama-series races at the Globes and the SAG Awards a few months ago, FX decided its show was a miniseries for Emmy purposes.
While "Mad Men" has been batting 1.000, its cast is still 0-for-however-many years each has been nominated. And this doesn't look to be a good year for star Jon Hamm, who is expected to face particularly stiff competition.
Among those expected to be named, there's Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad," who's won every year he's been eligible in the category. There's also Emmy darling Kelsey Grammer. Granted, he has won for comedy, but in Starz's "Boss" he's playing another of those Emmy-bait bombastic roles he does like nobody's business.
Also high on many forecasters' lists: two-time Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman, who starred in HBO's short-lived (though it outlasted three of its horses) racetrack drama, "Luck." And let's not forget the TV academy's favorite scenery-chewer, Kiefer Sutherland, now starring in Fox's kid-with-numbers drama, "Touch."
In the best-comedy competition, do we really think "New Girl" or "2 Broke Girls" or just plain "Girls" will depose "Modern Family" on Emmy night this year? Presumably, "It's an honor to have been nominated" is the best these new series can hope for this year, which would make the announcement Thursday morning their big Emmy moment.
Speaking of foregone conclusions, the race for best reality series has been won by "The Amazing Race" in eight of the past nine years. (Its loss in 2010 to Bravo's "Top Chef" still has people talking.) The thing to watch for Thursday morning is whether, as some have forecast, ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" will be snubbed after six straight years of nominations.
Children have grown up who have never known a time when Jon Stewart's Comedy Central faux newscast "The Daily Show" was not annually crowned the best variety, music or comedy series at the Emmys. Stewart's show has taken that trophy nine years running. And yet, nominations in that category are among the most eagerly anticipated on Thursday. That's because industry pundits predict ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" will snag its first nomination in this race. Plus, David Letterman's CBS show is forecast to rejoin the club after being tossed out last year to make room for Conan O'Brien's TBS program. Neither Conan nor Jay Leno, the before-and-after-Conan "Tonight" host, are expected to be nominated this year.
Serious trophy-show wonks will also be watching Thursday and hoping Bill Maher gets some Emmy nominations.
Maher, host of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher," is a kind of mascot for the prime-time Emmy Awards. Maher is Emmy's biggest loser. He's been nominated for 27 Emmys since 1995, as a performer, producer and writer, but has never won. Maher has already outpaced soap opera diva Susan Lucci, who finally won a Daytime Emmy in 1999 on her 19th at-bat. He's also ahead of prime time's Angela Lansbury, known for her record 18 losses as a performer.
Over the years, and nearly every year since '95, Maher has lost to some of the best. He has lost to "The Daily Show" in the best-variety-program competition and even lost to "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" the one and only time Leno won that race. Maher's writing team has lost to the writers of "The Colbert Report," and his specials have, in various categories, been beaten by "The Kennedy Center Honors," a Neil Patrick Harris-hosted Tony Awards, the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics and something called "Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project."
If, as some have suggested, Maher does not pick up a nomination Thursday morning, it would be a real loss - for Emmy wonks.