The debate rages on — is the Emmy playing field tilted against the networks that broadcast them?

ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC recently renewed their wheel deal to rotate broadcasts of the Emmys for eight more years, two per network — which all but guarantees eight more years of handwringing over whether there should be changes to an awards show that, by perception at least, celebrates their cable cousins more and more.

“It is not an even playing field because to succeed on network TV, your reach has to be so much broader that you cannot take as many risks as some of the more acclaimed cable dramas that have a very narrow audience by comparison,” says TV Guide critic Matt Roush. “Some of the cable shows that we revere would be disastrous flops on a broadcast network.”

Over the past few years, many cable series have cleaned up during awards season. AMC’s “Mad Men” has been named outstanding drama for the past three years, while “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston has claimed the lead actor trophy over the same period.

Though memories can be short, it’s a fairly new development. “Mad Men'”s best dramatic series win in 2008 was the first for a basic cable program in that category. Previously, the first overall win in the category by any cable show was HBO’s “The Sopranos” in 2004.

And cable still hasn’t been that competitive when it comes to comedy series. The only cable skein to win a statue for top comedy was HBO’s “Sex and the City” in 2001. After that, the trophy headed back to the broadcast networks, with NBC’s “Friends,” CBS’ “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Fox’s “Arrested Development” and NBC’s “The Office” and “30 Rock” all claiming the kudo in the past years.

The latter dominated the award from 2007-09 until finally being leapfrogged by yet another broadcast series, ABC’s “Modern Family” in 2010.

So broadcast isn’t quite so bad off, after all. In any case, cable has made enough inroads that industry insiders wonder what should be done differently for broadcast nets to hang onto Emmy’s attention.

“I think the categories should be divided,” says one studio marketer. “Cable series and broadcast series are not equivalent in so many different ways, from format to content to length to budgets. To say they should compete on a level playing field seems unfair.”

On the other hand, says Roush, separating the categories is “patronizing” to the broadcast shows.

“So many of the shows that get higher ratings and last a long time are somewhat formulaic,” says Roush. “That works, which is why there’s so much of that kind of TV. But those shows don’t show up in the nominations because they aren’t very distinctive. Distinctive shows are what tend to pop.”

Many industry marketers also say that the cable networks have an easier time promoting their programs because they have fewer of them. Moreover, Emmy awards are more important to many cable networks because they build their brands around them.

“These shows are huge revenue drivers for these networks. They are signing up subscribers who want to watch ‘The Big C’ or ‘Nurse Jackie’ or ‘True Blood,’ ” says another studio marketer. “Every award they win impacts their bottom line. Emmys don’t connect the dots so distinctly for a broadcast network.”

It’s much harder for the big studios to spend time and money promoting every show they produce. Studios such as Warner Bros. or Twentieth Century Fox can have 40 or 50 shows in the mix at one time, whereas a cable network might have four or five.

Cable marketers say the broadcast networks should take a lesson from them. For example, Showtime puts every episode of all its series online for Academy members to view, a practice started by Showtime’s top marketer, Richard Licata, two years ago. That allows voters to watch the programming at their leisure.

“Truthfully, I don’t think the broadcast networks campaign enough to the voting members of the TV Academy,” says one cable marketer. “The broadcast networks seem to be steeped in old-fashioned notions that if people watched our show during the year and loved it, they’ll vote for it. Over the years, basic and premium cable networks have gotten more aggressive about reminding people about their great shows.”

Many agree that whatever advantages or disadvantages exist, the cream rises to the top. All 15,000 members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) have the opportunity to nominate TV’s best programs, while the individual achievements are nominated by members of their peer groups. Only art directors vote on art direction.

Once the nomination process is complete, voters are separated into groups who sign an affidavit agreeing to watch all the material submitted for their category and state that they have no conflict of interest. An HBO employee who’s also a member of the academy, for example, cannot vote on HBO-produced programs.

“The whole academy was built on this notion of peer group voting,” says ATAS senior vice president John Leverence. “There’s a very deep sensibility within this academy about the appropriateness of that voting approach.”

By having subject matter experts do the voting, the results invariably end up being a little elitist, say observers.

“We’re in a golden age of television comedy and drama,” says Leverence. “As a result, the volume of high quality programming is much greater than the volume of nomination slots.”

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