HBO’s dominance explained

Star power in longform material boosts cabler's kudos count

It’s become an annual tradition. Each July, Emmy nominations are announced. Each July, HBO receives more than any other network.

Most of the attention falls on the cabler’s original series, but would gaudy nom tallies like this year’s 93 (closest competitor CBS landed only 59) really be possible without a continued devotion to longform projects?

This year, even without a powerhouse like 2004’s “Angels in America,” the cabler managed to increase its longform mentions from 44 to 50. In fact, nearly 60% of HBO’s nods came from minis or movies this year.

“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers” and FDR biopic “Warm Springs,” led all comers this year with 16 noms each.

Adding to HBO’s longform bounty are the 10 mentions for star-studded mini “Empire Falls,” seven for the nostalgic “Lackawanna Blues” and one for Rwanda-set “Sometimes in April.”

The most-nominated non-HBO longform title is the CBS mini “Elvis,” which scored six mentions. A&E John McCain biopic “Faith of My Fathers” and TNT’s William H. Macy starrer, “The Wool Cap,” each scored four.

“I don’t think I’d be in a minority by saying those of us who have worked for all of the networks would prefer to work for HBO,” says “Warm Springs” helmer Joseph Sargent, who was nominated last year for HBO’s “Something the Lord Made.” “They spend the money, and that’s so thrilling for us. To put the kind of work you do into a production and then have it marketed, serviced and coddled as brilliantly as (HBO does) is very rewarding.”

Sargent’s only competition in the directing for a miniseries, movie or dramatic special category comes from other HBO helmers: Stephen Hopkins for “Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” Fred Schepisi for “Empire Falls,” and George C. Wolfe for “Lackawanna Blues.” Wolfe is a multiple Tony winner, while the other three helmers have extensive feature film credits.

“They have a reputation in the industry. People will do movies for HBO they wouldn’t do for any other entity,” says TV Guide senior critic Matt Roush.

Consider the 16 Oscar-nominated performers in HBO’s five Emmy-nominated longforms. Eight of them have been Emmy-nominated this year. “There’s no shame in going on HBO,” Roush says. “Even if there ever was in any way, ‘Angels in America’ changed that forever.”

“Empire Falls” author and scribe Richard Russo agrees. When Paul Newman acquired the film rights to Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Russo immediately wanted to take the project to HBO.

From there, “Empire” attracted an enviable cast, including Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, Robin Wright Penn, Joanne Woodward, Aidan Quinn and Newman. Harris, Hoffman, Newman and Woodward earned Emmy nominations.

“I think the odds of that cast anywhere besides HBO is somewhere between slim and none,” Russo says.

Overall, 11 of the 20 longform acting nominees this year come from HBO titles. But unlike last year, when “Angels in America” swept every key category, this year’s contest might spread the wealth.

Whether or not the cabler can match last year’s 15 wins in the longform categories remains to be seen, but few expect HBO’s dominance to end any time soon.

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