The days in the Emmy drama spotlight might not be gone forever for the broadcast networks, but they’re going to need to do one of two things to change their fortunes — step up their game, or adjust to cable’s.

For the first time in Emmy history, no drama series nominee came from the big four broadcast networks — ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC. And in fact, even with PBS staking the claim for over-the-air providers with “Downton Abbey,” none of the nominees in the category produced a season longer than the 13 episodes apiece for AMC’s “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men.”

The development reignited fears that broadcast dramas are at a growing disadvantage each year come Emmy time, thanks in part to their need to cultivate a sizable audience but perhaps even more so to longer episode orders that make creative excellence harder to come by.

While saying he “absolutely” thinks it’s possible for broadcast dramas to return to Emmy glory, exec producer Damon Lindelof of “Lost” — ABC’s last Emmy-nominated drama — calls the challenge much more intense than it is for cablers.

“In order to make a show that a lot of people are going to watch, just to not get canceled, you tend to veer out of that high-art, qualitiative, critic-friendly storytelling that cable shows are much more able to embrace,” Lindelof says.

“And then, at its most basic element, the conveyor belt is moving so much faster,” he adds. “You have to make twice as much product in the same amount of time. That’s enormously challenging to maintain the same quality as they do on cable.”

It has even been suggested that broadcast and cable shows should compete in separate categories — recalling the bygone days of the Cable Ace Awards, only with the broadcast race serving as the junior varsity competition. That’s probably a step too far — and certainly, the acknowledgment by Academy of Television Arts & Sciences CEO Bruce Rosenblum in late July that the org’s Board of Governors should explore expanding the drama series field to 10 nominees would offer broadcast shows a simpler Emmy lifeline.

In any case, the uphill climb for broadcast dramas at the Emmys has never seemed so steep.

The short and long of it

“Homeland” exec producer Alex Gansa, who spent his career in broadcast TV (“The X-Files,” “24”) before joining Howard Gordon to co-create Showtime’s quintuple-nommed adaptation of an Israeli series, concurs that cable is more suited for quality drama.

“You’re only doing 12 or 13 episodes, and it just gives you that much more time to give a little tender loving care with each installment of your story,” Gansa says. “The episodes can expand or contract based on the needs of the actual story. … And you’re not concerned with act breaks to go into commerical. You’re not locked into a 42-minute time frame.”

Gansa says on “Homeland,” the shooting schedule itself didn’t differ significantly from what he experienced in broadcast. The key impact comes before lensing begins, with more time to prepare.

“You could compare it almost directly to ’24,'” he says. “With a discrete number of episodes like 12, you have the opportunity to really chart out the course of a season at the beginning that you don’t have in network TV. Doing 24 episodes on ’24,’ there was no way you were going to be able to see that far ahead and understand where show was going to go.

“On any broadcast network show, there’s sort of a quagmire when you’re trying to bridge the gap toward the finale.”

In addition, because of their smaller slates, cable’s top executives are able to devote more attention to each individual series. Though some in the biz might say that’s the last thing they want, Gansa values the attention.

“The amount of time that Showtime (execs) David Nevins, Gary Levine and Randy Runkle get to take with each script and each cut of every episode, and the care they take with giving us notes, would be inconceivable” with a larger schedule, Gansa says.

Another fringe benefit, Lindelof points out, is that cable networks with smaller slates have fewer shows they need to campaign for.

“Speaking selfishly (regarding) ‘Lost,’ we were constantly making sure no ABC show was getting more campaign space than we were,” Lindelof recalls. “And (the other shows) were probably doing the same.”

What defines a show?

If broadcast is to make an Emmy comeback, it will have to overcome the air of inevitability over which shows get nominated — not entirely unlike the way cable renounded to three Emmy comedy nominations this year after being zeroed out in 2011.

Among 2011-12’s broadcast freshmen, for example, you’d have no trouble finding a dozen dramas with crowdpleasing elements and/or a level of sophisticated storytelling: ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” “Revenge” and “The River” (which ended up in the miniseries category after cancelation); CBS’ “Person of Interest”; the CW’s “Ringer”; Fox’s “Alcatraz,” “Terra Nova” and “Touch”; plus NBC’s “Awake,” “Grimm,” “Prime Suspect” and “Smash.”

Say what you will about the results, but conceptually, there was nothing preventing these from achieving critical glory. None, however, was generally seen as an egregious omission from the drama-series race. And what’s telling is four of the best hopes when they were greenlit — “Alcatraz,” “Awake,” “Smash” and “Touch” — launched with episode orders of 15 or fewer. That’s about as level a playing field with cable as you can get.

The since-canceled “Awake,” in particular, is an interesting case study, in that the dark and complex series was one that many observers felt could have become a multiseason Emmy centerpiece had it been produced for a network like AMC, FX or Showtime.

Conversely, it’s easy to wonder what would have happened if “Homeland” had ended up on broadcast.

“Howard (Gordon) and I wrote ‘Homeland’ on spec,” Gansa says. “We always had our eye on Showtime — we always felt the show belonged there — but we knew we had to address the corporate imperative to first shop it around at NBC and Fox, for example. We originally developed it for that purpose. (But) we knew that the broadcast networks were going to look sort of sideways at this project.”

In retrospect, it seems the broadcasters shortsightedly passed on a gem, but Lindelof questions whether the critical success of “Homeland” could have occurred away from cable.

“First off, does Claire Danes want to be on a broadcast drama?” he asks. “Sometimes, in order to attract a level of talent like a Claire Danes, you have to say to them we’re only going to do 10 to 13 episodes a year. And it is a cable show — there is a certain air of class that I think is unfair, but it certainly exists.

“The second question is what makes ‘Homeland’ ‘Homeland.’ Very, very early on in that show, there are scenes where Brody (Damian Lewis) is basically having sex with his wife that borders on … I wouldn’t say rape, but it’s graphic in a way that you could never do on broadcast. … Not being able to do scenes like that would really limit its storytelling.”

The Ratings Dilemma

To that end, at a recent Television Critics Assn. press panel, upcoming Emmy host Jimmy Kimmel offered the missing ingredient for broadcast Emmy contenders.

“Nudity and profanity,” Kimmel joked. “If we could have more of that on television, we could win a lot more Emmys. And I implore the FCC to do something about that.”

Aside from obeying government regulations, broadcast networks shy away from riskier pilots in order to preserve a wider aud. “Awake,” perhaps the most challenging new series of 2011-12, arguably illustrates the peril of asking too much of its viewership — its audience barely broke a 1.0 rating in the 18-49 demo.

But it’s shaky to conclude that the broadcasters are making ratings hay by playing it safe with their latest dramas. Out of more than 20 hourlong series that premiered in 2011-12, “Once Upon a Time” was the only one to crack the top 20 in 18-49. “Person of Interest” was the only one that could make the sam
e claim in total viewers.

Sophisticated dramas that deliver respectable ratings are too recent a phenomenon to give up on. Two-time Emmy drama series nominee “The Good Wife” isn’t CBS’ biggest ratings hit, but it does just fine, thank you. ABC had “Lost” in 2010, Fox had “House” in 2009. While the landscape is more competitive than ever, it hasn’t changed enough to suggest broadcast dramas can’t rise to the challenge of winning over the Academy.

Looking ahead to the 2012-13 season, ABC has a potential successor to “Lost” on its hands in Shawn Ryan’s ambitious “The Last Resort,” while Fox would seem to have the cable formula in place for midseason entry “The Following,” which features a respected star (Kevin Bacon), a serialized story and a limited, 15-episode order.

Though the economics of broadcast TV have long favored full-season orders, there’s no formula that thrives on canceled programs. The more often that shrinking a season creates the greater potential for a longer-running show, let alone an Emmy-nominated one, the more times the networks might go to that well.

“I definitely think reducing the episodic content would eliminate the excuse in broadcast that it’s not fair,” Lindelof says.

Barring that, the broadcast networks have one more response toward overcoming the Emmy drama hurdle. Taking a cue from one of their longtime sponsors, there comes a time when you have to say, “Just do it.” Someone must be able to.

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