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How ‘NYPD Blue’ Changed Emmy Culture and Paved the Way for ‘Game of Thrones’ (Column)

When “Game of Thrones” made history this year by scoring 32 Emmy nominations — the most ever for a series in a single year — it broke a record that had previously been held by the premiere season of “NYPD Blue.”

It’s been 25 years since the Steven Bochco and David Milch cop drama helped change TV storytelling, ushering in a new era of more sophisticated, commercially successful small screen that eventually led to its new “golden age.” And it also altered the Emmy landscape: In 1994, “NYPD Blue” landed 27 nominations, a feat that wouldn’t be topped until this year.

“NYPD Blue” pushed the primetime envelope as no other broadcast show had, testing the boundaries of sex and language, and presenting complicated characters whom you didn’t always root for. Its TV DNA led to such shows as “The Sopranos” and “The Shield,” that in turn, spawned the explosion in original series on cable and then streaming.

“NYPD Blue” made a big splash at the Emmys despite controversy over the show — which was considered so edgy at the time that several ABC affiliates initially refused to air it. While it may seem tame now, the show’s use of nudity and language was enough to rile up cultural critics — and the FCC even initially fined the network for “adult sexual nudity” in one early episode.

But that fine was eventually thrown out, and soon “NYPD Blue” was such a big hit that those ABC affiliates that had pre-empted the show reversed course. By the end of Season 1, it was clear that “NYPD Blue” was a force, and Television Academy members couldn’t deny the show.

Among those 27 nominations was a nod for drama series, and nearly the entire cast was recognized, including Dennis Franz and David Caruso for lead drama actor; Gordon Clapp and Nicholas Turturro for supporting drama actor; and Amy Brenneman, Sharon Lawrence and Gail O’Grady for supporting drama actress.

What’s even more impressive is “NYPD Blue” pulled off a rarity: It took all five slots in the drama writing category. The only other show to ever do that was another Bochco series, “Hill Street Blues,” in 1983.

The show ultimately won six Emmys in 1994, including drama writing, drama directing and lead drama actor for Franz — although it was Caruso, ironically, who demanded to be released from his contract early to pursue a film career.

“NYPD Blue” picked up the drama series Emmy in 1995, for its second season. In fact, it was part of an early wave of critically acclaimed mid-’90s dramas that were in such short supply that they dominated the drama nominations for several years. In 1995, 1996 and 1997, the nominees were exactly the same: “NYPD Blue,” “Law & Order,” “Chicago Hope,” “ER” and “The X-Files.”

“NYPD Blue” ultimately won 20 Emmys, out of 84 nominations, during its 12-season run, and was the last cop series to win the drama series category. Ten years after “NYPD Blue’s” 1994 breakthrough, the Emmys underwent another transformation, when “The Sopranos” won for drama series — the first time a cable series had picked up the top prize. And so history changed again.

Broadcast TV, however, hasn’t kept up with the promise of “NYPD Blue,” and it shows in its ever-decreasing number of Emmy nominations, something I tackled in a previous column. Back in 1994, Bochco and many industry observers believed “NYPD Blue” would transform TV and it did — but that transformation happened in cable.

A few years before he died, I sat down with Bochco and we discussed the legacy of “NYPD Blue.” He seemed a bit disappointed that rather than leading broadcast TV into a new era, it wound up being a bit of an outlier. For one thing, he didn’t think the broadcasters would take a chance on “NYPD Blue” today.

“It’s not that they can’t — they don’t want to,” he said when we spoke in 2014. “We were very successful. But you could argue that in the real grand scheme of things in broadcast, the reactionary forces won the battle. Because ABC took such a beating in the first several years of that process. They want to sell soap. They don’t want to sell controversy. It’s a very good business they’re in. We’re not holding a bake sale for them. A hit on broadcast still does quite well. They’re not in the business of changing the culture. If they do something that inadvertently changes the culture, that’s great.”

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