Cable plays originality card

But long-running favorites are still hard to unseat

With broadcast nets busy expanding their reality, “L&O” and “CSI” franchises, cable nets have been able to get into the race by taking chances with original ideas. That’s helped earn attention for shows like “The Shield,” “Monk” and just about everything on HBO the past few years.

Franchise shows — either top-rated groups of shows like “CSI” and “Law & Order” or popular staples such as “Frasier,” “The West Wing” and “Everybody Loves Raymond” — are surefire rating-grabbers. And while direct spinoffs have so far lived in the shadows of their originators, staple shows often can be nominated for and win Emmys year after year.

“I couldn’t begin to guess what voters are thinking,” says Jonathan Littman, executive producer of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “CSI: Miami” and fall’s “CSI: New York.” “I’ve tried for years to understand all of the voting and why it works the way it works, and I learned that I should just stop. I sleep better at night that way.

“The middle child always has the hard time standing out in the shadow of the first,” says Littman. “But come Emmy time, I’m not sure if there is one bias against another. It’s just the show attracting attention.”

Nipping at the heels of franchise shows are boundary-pushing shows on cable networks. HBO has become an Emmys monster with “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” and new additions like “Deadwood,” while FX’s “The Shield” has been a strong contender and its “Nip/Tuck” is getting some attention this year.

“Nobody’s making Emmy TV anymore except cable,” says Rick Kushman, TV critic for the Sacramento Bee. “That’s because they can put it all into one show.”

In their favor, cable nets usually produce 13 episodes (or less) for a season, while broadcast nets need to stretch their budgets — and creativity — over 20-plus.

There are also things that can be said and done on a cable network that just won’t fly at the major webs. “You have to ask the question, if you curse does it make it better?” says Littman. “That’s the only frustrating thing: Not all shows are really equal in the way that they have to get made.”

While cable shows offer more creative freedom, there are advantages to the wider exposure broadcast networks offer. Buzzworthy “Joan of Arcadia” creator Barbara Hall (who also created Emmy winner “Judging Amy”) embraces the challenge. “I like working within the four major networks and I like the audience that it brings me. In a weird way, I like the restrictions,” she says. “I like trying to push the envelope and knowing what my boundaries are and go as far as I can with that. It kind of stretches you creatively to do that.”

The consistency with which some shows are nominated year after year has so far benefited the established networks and HBO the most.

“We won a few things during our first year,” says Shawn Ryan, creator of “The Shield.” “But in year two I almost got the feeling that it was like, ‘OK, little FX network, you got your attention, now go away.’ Whereas the big behemoth network shows like the ‘West Wing’ get permanent residency in the nominations. Once a show gets labeled an Emmy contender or not an Emmy contender, that’s just the way it is. I’m not sure what side we’re on yet.”

No matter where the awards go, all involved believe that more good programming is always a good thing. “You can gripe and forget about the fact that there’s triple the amount of shows that there used to be and that this is absolutely a golden era of television, across the board,” says Littman. “There’s so much better television now than there was 20, 15 years ago. And that makes the competition tough.”

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