ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” has been rightly praised as broadcast TV’s great new Emmy hope, a critically acclaimed comedy that helped the traditional networks avoid completely getting shut out in the key scripted categories this year. But while the broadcasters have lamented the loss of their competitive edge among Television Academy voters for more than a decade, now it’s basic cable’s turn to watch their fortunes fade.
This year, just two basic cable series made it into the outstanding series field: AMC’s “Better Call Saul,” in drama, and FX’s “What We Do In the Shadows” in comedy. It’s a far cry from the golden age of basic cable at the Emmys, when the drama field, in particular, was dominated by the platform. The streak began in 2002, when FX made history by becoming the first basic cable network to win one of the major Emmy awards — when Michael Chiklis was named best actor for “The Shield.”
By 2008, basic cable was on the same path first forged by HBO when it leveled the playing field for premium cable a decade earlier. That year, both AMC (“Mad Men”) and FX (“Damages”) received drama series nominations — and “Mad Men” won.
“Mad Men” kept that streak alive in 2009, 2010 and 2011 — and then AMC was back in 2013 and 2014 with “Breaking Bad.” Comedy has been a bit harder for basic cable to pull off a win; it finally happened in 2020 with Pop TV’s “Schitt’s Creek” — but that victory was driven in tremendous part by the show’s exposure on streaming services (specifically, Netflix).
And there’s the rub. The quick acceleration of streamers from novelty to awards dominance has now pushed much of basic cable aside — just as cable started doing that to broadcast at the start of the millennium.
The earlier success of FX and AMC convinced plenty of other scripted basic cable networks — TBS, TNT, MTV, Lifetime, even E! and Bravo, briefly — to get into the prestige drama and comedy business. And it briefly worked. But it was a costly investment, and as cable began bleeding audiences to streamers, it didn’t make sense to continue. Many networks like Lifetime and MTV eventually went back to reality. And now others are getting out of it due to shifting corporate priorities. Pop TV is out of the originals game, and so now are the networks formerly known as Turner.
The remaining basic cable networks still doing scripted are either focused on longform (Hallmark, Lifetime) or are premiering their shows on a streamer, like FX’s shift to Hulu. AMC is holding on, but it, too, has a streamer it is steering programming to. (AMC also didn’t get much Emmy attention for its “The Walking Dead” juggernaut, and it’s uncertain whether the cabler’s next big franchise, the Anne Rice vampireverse, will do any better with kudos.)
That’s what makes the nominations for “Better Call Saul” and stars Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn so bittersweet. As cable morphs into something different, is this a last hurrah for the cord? In a few years, will HBO (as it relies more on HBO Max), Showtime, FX and AMC even be considered cable — or will they all be streaming services, part of a larger digital entity?
The second half of “Better Call Saul” Season 6 will be eligible for 2023 Emmys, which means there will still be a chance next year for the show to continue to be a part of the awards conversation. But I think this year is its best shot for more Emmy love, as TV Academy members simultaneously watch the show come to as a thrilling close, just as they vote for this year’s Emmys. “Saul” and its stars, including Odenkirk and Seehorn (finally with an Emmy nod!) deserve some true recognition before the show ends. And no matter what ultimately happens to basic cable, “Better Call Saul” will go down as one of the medium’s greatest entries, right along side its predecessor.