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Merit or mega-hits?

Have the most coveted music awards gone commercial? Domination by top 40 stars makes it look that way.

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Given the reality that this year's crop of contenders reached the all-time high of 16,500 entries for consideration, disagreements among music lovers are unavoidable. "It would be nice to see a bit more exposure for orchestral works," says 17-year-old high school junior Nick Heitkamp, from Victorville, Calif., an oboe player who has come down for the weekend to visit the Grammy museum in downtown Los Angeles. "After all," he says gesturing to the museum walls, amply decorated with musicians of every genre, from rhythm and blues to gospel, jazz, and classical, "it is the foundation of all the rest, so it would be nice to keep the emotional beauty of it in the popular music."

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In critiquing the Grammys, it's important to keep the telecast separate from the awards themselves, points out Christopher Sampson, associate dean for the Division of Popular Music and Industry Studies at USC Thornton School of Music. "If anything, the Grammy Awards serve as an annual snapshot of musical trends as seen through the eyes of the professionals in the academy," he writes in an e-mail. "If the Grammy Awards are viewed through the lens of the televised awards broadcast, it would be easy to think the awards are slanted towards popular artists."

But network television answers to its advertisers, Mr. Sampson says, and the need to attract and retain young viewers dominates the telecast decisions. "With this influence, it's understandable that the broadcast will lean heavily towards the artists that have moved millions of copies of their recordings because they will bring the largest television audience."

While this is only speculation he says, if the academy alone produced the awards show without the interests of a broadcast network in mind, it would be a very different show. This year, the awards are honoring artists in 109 categories, down one from an all-time high this past year, after the polka berth was consolidated into the folk category. Seems the favorite of the Lawrence Welk generation was no longer receiving enough nominations to remain viable. But for every passionate devotee of a particular genre, the Grammys still appeal to a broad range of fans who tune in to learn something new.

"I like the show," says caretaker Katie Mastin, from Orange County, a health- care professional who has brought a group of special needs adults to the museum to acquaint them with as many different musical influences as possible. She says the show serves somewhat the same purpose for her own musical knowledge. "I like to learn about new artists and categories I didn't know about before, and especially like the lifetime achievement award because you get a whole history," she says.

This year, for instance, Michael Jackson will receive, posthumously, one of seven such awards. That kind of experience is music to Portnow's ears.

"We spend a lot of time trying to come up with unique musical moments for our audience," he says, pointing to the pairing in a recent show of classical pianist Lang-Lang and Herbie Hancock in a performance of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." In 2003, he adds, he paired the New York Philharmonic with Coldplay.

"People loved it and saw the music in a new light," he says. As for intriguing Grammy moments in this year's broadcast, Portnow won't spoil the surprise. But he is hopeful that opera superstar Placido Domingo will agree to present an award. "Now, that's a perfect combination of star power and musical depth," he says. The kind of moment he believes the Grammys represent at their best.

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