More cablers look for Emmy breakthrough

USA would like kudos to go with ratings

AMC, FX and TNT have done it. Now fellow basic cable channels, including USA, Lifetime, TBS and ABC Family, say they’re ready for some Emmy directing, writing and acting glory for work on weekly series.

Lifetime exec VP of entertainment JoAnn Alfano says that while the Emmys are never the “driving force, they are certainly an opportunity to put a show in a national spotlight and attract new viewers.”

It’s easier said than done for some cablers, however. USA original programming prexy Jeff Wachtel says it’s difficult to break into Emmy’s drama categories, though he is hoping this year will present “a bit more of an open field.”

“As much as I respect and appreciate ‘Mad Men,’ I’m not sure four out of five writing nominations need to go to that one show,” Wachtel says of last year’s drama writing category, in which “Lost” was the only other skein included with the AMC period series.

Despite USA having a track record for tracking down an audience, Wachtel says the cabler’s programs, which tend to mix action with whimsy, have been at a disadvantage when it comes to the Emmy race.

“We are known for our commercial success and our upbeat, escapist sensibility, and honestly I think people underestimate that,” Wachtel says.

But Wachtel thinks the time for Emmy recognition is nigh. “Burn Notice,” “In Plain Sight” and “White Collar” are among the shows USA would like to see nominated in writing, directing, acting or even series categories.

“In the early days of basic cable four or five years ago, any version of critical acclaim was great in validating the channel and saying, ‘Look, these people are doing something good,’ ” Wachtel says. “These days, I think the story is out. Some of the best shows on television are on basic cable.”

Emmy has a hot-and-cold relationship with Lifetime. The channel is no stranger to made-for-TV movie nominations, receiving four last year for “Prayers for Bobby” and one for “Coco Chanel.” But while looking to renew that made-for success (with offerings including last September’s biopic “Georgia O’Keeffe” starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons), Lifetime also hopes Emmy takes notice of its series talent, in such shows as “Army Wives” and “Drop Dead Diva.”

Also hoping to make an Emmy dent this year is TBS with “Lopez Tonight.” Relatively new to original programming, TBS is looking to follow in the footsteps of sister net TNT, which has scored four nominations for Kyra Sedgwick in “The Closer” and two for Holly Hunter in “Saving Grace.”

“Viewers have so many different options, so an award nomination or a win is absolutely a way of making a certain kind of show more apparent to its potential audience,” says Michael Wright, exec VP and head of programming for TBS, TNT and Turner Classic Movies.

TBS’ Emmy chances might get a boost a year from now, after Conan O’Brien’s talker goes on the air.

As for AMC, home of two-time defending drama series champion “Mad Men” and two-time lead drama actor winner Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad,” senior veep of original programming, production and digital content Joel Stillerman can afford to feel “confident” about the network’s chances in 2010. But Stillerman is also rooting for his fellow basic cablers.

“I would like to see basic cable continue to have the kind of profile it has had over the past few years, because it is incredibly important for ad-supported television to be perceived as a place where you can get the same kind of programs you can get on HBO and Showtime,” Stillerman says.

“I don’t mean to exclude the networks, but I think things have changed to the extent that cable is really an entity onto itself in terms of being a home for great dramatic storytelling. So it’s important that basic cable stay vital on the Emmy landscape.”

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