HBO mini leads pack of cable contenders

Noms aren’t even out yet, but it’s no secret that HBO’s “Angels in America” is this year’s big favorite to nab a slew of Emmys in the miniseries categories.

In the words of Neil Meron, who produced Showtime’s “The Reagans” with his partner, Craig Zadan, “You can never predict the Emmys, but when you have such a clear-cut event as ‘Angels in America,’ you can see the writing on the wall, because it’s such an important work, and it demands acknowledgement.”

Or, in the less-diplomatic words of another TV executive: “They should just line up all the ‘Angels’ people on stage and give it to them. They’d cut an hour off the ceremony.”

“Angels in America” — the Mike Nichols-directed adaptation of Tony Kushner’s iconic Broadway production — has some bizzers feeling that this year, even more than in the past, the nomination is the real honor.

HBO is working hard not to appear too cocky — expect no “Resistance is futile!” pronouncements from corporate HQ.

But there is grumbling around the industry that the competition isn’t fair and that HBO is growing arrogant with its current success. Still, the networks and producers who put up the year’s other Emmy-worthy minis and made-fors say they’re determined to play David to HBO’s Goliath. They say that other giants in this category have fallen on the way to the podium, and that they mean to campaign hard for their contenders.

Showtime, for example, has a couple that will go head-to-head with “Angels” in the acting categories, including “The Reagans” and late-entry “The Lion in Winter.” While “Angels’ “Al Pacino and Meryl Streep bring star power to the competition, Showtime’s Richard Licata says they’re not shoo-ins.

” ‘Lonesome Dove’ was a big favorite (in 1989)” says Licata. “There was a lot of anticipation that that was going to sweep. But there was a disappointment that year. Robert Duvall was the slam dunk, and he did not win.”

Instead, the Emmy went to James Woods for “My Name Is Bill W.” Licata also points to upset wins by Tony Shalhoub for “Monk” and Michael Chiklis for “The Shield.” “My faith is in the surprise,” he says.

Where there is frustration about “Angels,” much of it revolves around the nature of the Emmy competition. Meron and Zadan, who are great admirers of “Angels,” say that HBO has a leg up from the start.

“They spend more on their productions and their promotion is feature quality, and the networks and cable networks can’t compete with that,” says Meron.

Zadan adds, “Movie stars, movie actors, will do HBO, because they don’t feel like they’re doing a TV movie.”

“The Lion in Winter” producer Robert Halmi Sr. is certainly going to campaign for stars Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, and will work with ABC to campaign for “Dreamkeeper.”

Halmi says flatly, though, that the race is unfair, because lumping actors from made-fors, minis and limited series into a single category means comparing apples to oranges. And then, of course, Halmi states the usual Emmy-related rants against HBO.

Of course, it’s not like HBO won’t feel some of the cold casts by “Angels in America’s” very big shadow this year itself. The Suffrage-based “Iron Jawed Angels,” starring Hilary Swank and Anjelica Huston, and the meta-historical “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself” (Antonio Banderas plays the title character) are viewed by many as good enough to win longform Emmys but could very well end up empty-handed.

And while some competitors might feel edged out this year, there are a few with enough perspective to admit that “Angels” is a great show, and that its quality is good for the television business.

Certainly “Angels” brings a distinguished pedigree and some heavyweight names to the competition. Last year, the Sci Fi Channel was in a similar position, with its Steven Spielberg-produced mini “Taken” a heavy favorite. This year, the tables are turned, and Sci Fi’s “Battlestar Galactica” is the underdog.

Sci Fi Channel prexy Bonnie Hammer is confident the show will hold its own — if it can get voters to actually watch their screeners.

“Being a familiar name, if they don’t screen and just go by the name itself, (voters) might think it’s a quirky fan-based show,” Hammer says. “They might not realize how much different, how much more thoughtful the miniseries is than what they remember.”

It would certainly be a huge upset if “Battlestar” beat “Angels” in any of the major categories, if only because of how differently people remember the source material — a short-lived ’70s TV skein vs. a long-running, acclaimed Broadway sensation. Hammer is philosophical about facing such a strong favorite, though.

“It’s the nature of the game, she says. Sometimes the coast is clear for you and sometimes it’s not. “My goal as a programmer is to come up with quality productions each year that can go toe-to-toe with HBO, and in some years, beat them out.”

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