Cable triumphs over broadcast at 60th Emmys

Et tu, Emmy?

Network execs have been grumbling for years over the Primetime Emmy Awards’ cable invasion — but this year’s “Mad Men” triumph may have set them over the edge.

“Call it what it is: The Cable Ace Awards,” went the common, slightly bitter quip from broadcast toppers in the weeks following July’s nomination announcement.

It wasn’t just “Mad Men’s” big, groundbreaking (for a basic cable skein, at least) drama series win. Cable’s haul included top prizes for “Damages” thesps Glenn Close and Zeljko Ivanek, “John Adams” stars Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney and “Breaking Bad” lead Bryan Cranston.

The traditional nets? Well, thank goodness for comedy actress winner Tina Fey, whose “30 Rock” gave broadcast TV most of its bright spots all evening — also picking up statuettes for outstanding comedy skein, best writing and top laffer actor (Alec Baldwin).

Adding insult to injury: Sunday night’s cable coronation came just a day before the networks, more hobbled than ever, officially launched their fall premiere week.

Coming off a low-rated summer and strike-impacted regular TV season, the nets already enter the new season bruised and battered. The fact that the Big 4 only picked up 10 out of the night’s 28 Emmy Awards didn’t help.

ABC’s promos may have been touting the return of shows like “Desperate Housewives,” but the TV Academy was sending out an entirely different message: “You oughta go check out the great stuff they’re doing on cable instead.”

Sunday’s show wasn’t helped by Emmy’s 60th anniversary milestone. Much of the ceremony’s non-awards segments were devoted to the best of TV’s past: “Mary Tyler Moore,” “M*A*S*H,” “Dragnet,” “The West Wing.” It almost served as an unfortunate message to viewers, true or not: Broadcast TV’s best resides in its past.

With so much cable packed in, you’ll excuse the folks at ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox for being increasingly annoyed at turning their schedule over to a three-hour infomercial for pretty much everything but their own shows.

Back when cable’s haul was mostly confined to HBO, the networks at least were able to blame the channel’s success on its status as pay TV service. With no advertisers, HBO could push the envelope and air more provocative, gritty fare. And flush with subscriber fees, HBO could spend lavishly on production and marketing — not to mention lavish Emmy campaigns.

And when it came to cable’s dominance in the longform categories, the networks could point to the fact that they’d mostly abandoned the form.

HBO’s domination is a foregone conclusion now. But with basic cable networks like FX, AMC and TNT now in the series mix, broadcast TV is finding itself being shut out of the awards show it originated more than ever.

That may become an issue come 2010, when the current four-network wheel contract with the TV Academy expires. Cable execs have hinted that they’d be interested in stealing away the Emmycast — and the broadcasters may very well let them.

“We’d go for it if it were available,” FX topper John Landgraf told Variety earlier this summer.

The idea of the Emmys moving to a smaller network seems improbable. But there’s precedent: Upstart net Fox surprised the town by stealing away the Emmycast in 1988 (some would say that’s what began the show’s ratings slide). HBO made a major bid for the show in 2002, before the nets agreed to boost the license fee they pay the Academy.

Some network chieftains are already rumbling that any new deal will have to include a dramatic change in how the Primetime Emmys are presented. One oft-discussed proposal: Move the longform awards into a new ceremony, or at least move those categories into the Creative Arts awards the week before.

Such a move wouldn’t prevent broadcasters from being trumped in the series categories — but at least the show wouldn’t come off as a complete Big 4 smackdown. What’s more, a ceremony that had more time to celebrate TV and not just rattle off 28 categories in rapid-fire progression might just win back some viewers.

After all, it’s in the best interest of both broadcast and cable execs to promote the small screen to as large an aud as possible. (“Pushing Daisies” helmer Barry Sonnenfeld — another one of broadcast’s few winners Sunday night — commanded viewers, after all, to “love TV and fear the Internet” — not “love broadcast and fear cable”).

Such Emmy-related hand-wringing will likely take place in the coming days, as the kudofest is expected to once again post ratings declines.

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