Cable exerts Emmy dominance

Years of snubs give way to series victories

It’s not often that one gets to watch a long-trampled underdog turn into an omnipotent power overnight.

The Boston Red Sox going from cursed failures to two-time World Series champs in the past decade was one example, and if Emmy’s drama nominations are anything to go by, the shift of quality drama from broadcast to cable may well be another.

After years of being largely passed over, cable dramas accounted for five out of seven nominees this year, following a year in which they accounted for half, leaving execs and critics wondering whether broadcast nets can still compete.

The proliferation of prestige programming nods for cable has been a long time coming. While the Emmys subsumed the Cable Ace Awards in 1997, it wasn’t until 2004 that “The Sopranos” became the first cable drama to claim the Emmy, a win many considered overdue. Meanwhile, critically adored cable series such as HBO’s “The Wire,” Syfy’s “Battlestar Galactica” and FX’s “The Shield” ran their courses without a single nomination among them. And it wasn’t until last year that a cabler other than HBO received a nod.

“It took a long time for basic cable to crack the category,” says FX president John Landgraf, who has a horse in this year’s race with “Damages.” “Since cable programming aims for smaller, more niche audiences, we’re able to be more uncompromising.”

But once the shift occurs, opinions can change quickly, and there are ominous precedents in Emmy’s recent past. The miniseries category, for example, was long a showcase for broadcast prestige product, only to gradually become the sole provenance of cable and public programming. With only a single broadcast series nominated in the last seven years, the big four have all but abandoned the format.

“Cable is more of a risk-taker because the cable networks tend to be more thematic,” says TV historian Tim Brooks, “whereas broadcasters can be all over the map since they have to appeal to such a wide group of viewers — they end up following the trend du jour and being pulled in different directions by different groups of executives.”

Further, most cable shows produce about half the number of episodes required by broadcast series. Add onto that cable’s freedom to include far more risque and provocative content, and it’s clear that the two are very different animals.

“When ‘The Sopranos’ came out, there was definitely a sort of inferiority complex at the networks,” remembers Marcy Ross, senior VP at Fox, whose “House” is nominated for a fourth consecutive year. “It was just, ‘Oh, if only we could swear, if only we could just do 14 episodes a season.’ ”

All of which causes some to wonder: Will there come a time when competing with cable for Emmy honors proves more trouble than broadcast nets are willing to put up with? Or, considering the joint ownership of so many cablers and broadcasters, will they embrace a model much like that of film studios and satellite specialty divisions, funneling off prestige programming to where it can be produced more cheaply, thereby winning kudos and bragging rights without sacrificing the bottom line?

Fox’s Ross says that, while she’s never seen a series concept relegated from broadcast to cable, she would be open to the idea. “If we felt a series would be better served on cable, we would try to find a financial model to make it work.”

She hastens to add, though, that the broadcast nets have no intention of giving up on dramas.

“Cable has a certain cachet, of course, but I would be sad to not be able to produce 22 episodes a season,” she says. “We get to have, on one network, a slate of sci-fi, procedurals, shows like ’24’ and also one like ‘Glee’ — a whole spectrum of creativity.”

Indeed, while cable may be on the ascendancy, no one is ready to count broadcast out of the race yet.

“The networks absolutely can make series at the same quality level as cable,” NPR TV critic David Bianculli insists, noting that what’s often lacking is the will to do so. ” ‘Life’ last season reached the same level of excellence that the best cable dramas do, and then to look at what broadcasters still do with comedy — ’30 Rock’ and ‘The Simpsons’ are absolutely brilliant shows.”

Landgraf agrees. “Broadcast still puts up great programming,” he says. “I think what (the nominations) really show is that Emmy voters are getting much more agnostic about where a show comes from. And that’s as it should be. It should just be about the show.”

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