Cable programs bask in the Globes' spotlight

Network comedies and dramas mostly get sharp elbows

December 14, 2007|By Scott Collins | Scott Collins,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Everyone knew that 2007 was a breakout year for big, noisy cable shows, so it wasn't necessarily surprising that the Showtimes and FXs of the world mopped up nominations for the 65th annual Golden Globes yesterday.

It was, however, remarkable that broadcasters saw their series often reduced to asterisks or also-rans in the Globes derby. The magnitude of the imbalance was impressive, as was the timing, with the network midseason now threatened by a lengthy writers' strike.

The curious state of the affairs wasn't lost on nominees such as Christina Applegate.

"It's really lonely out here," said the actress, who was nominated for her new ABC comedy Samantha Who?, one of only three fall broadcast premieres to get nods yesterday from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. (The others were Pushing Daisies and Dirty Sexy Money, also on ABC.) Of course, cable has been catching kudos for years, but this year, the laurels spread well beyond traditional favorite HBO.

For the first time ever, HBO and its creatively surging pay-cable rival, Showtime, had Globe contenders in both the comedy and drama categories, with spiky fare like such as Big Love and Californication. (HBO's The Sopranos was conspicuously absent, leaving fans to speculate that the controversial finale of the mob drama played a role in the omission.) Showtime's lush, racy costume epic The Tudors gave the network its first-ever dramatic series nod.

On basic cable, AMC drew mention for its first original scripted series, Mad Men, the period piece about the 1960s advertising business. And cable series all but swept the dramatic acting categories, partly due to such new summer series as FX's murder mystery Damages and TNT's crowd-pleasing cop dramas Saving Grace and The Closer.

By comparison, broadcasters had very little to cheer about. With the exception of the ABC shows, Globe voters, like many viewers and critics, gave the cold shoulder to the networks' fall premieres, ignoring even the few shows that did win reviewer applause, such as CW's Reaper and NBC's Chuck. There was a series nod for ABC's Grey's Anatomy, but no love for its new spin-off, Private Practice. NBC's Heroes, nominated for best drama last year, didn't make the cut this time. Fox's nod was confined to the medical drama House.

And CBS, America's most-watched network, was shut out entirely from the best-series derby, as it has been the past few years; its most recent contender was CSI: Crime Scene Investigation back in 2003.

Such an outcome highlights the stark contrast between the programming strategies pursued in recent years by broadcasters and their cable brethren.

Referring to cable's strong showing, Jon Hamm, the Globe-nominated lead of Mad Men, said, "I think that's the reward for making quality television and not falling back on the `unscripted' reality [and] game shows that networks seem to be putting all of their money and time behind."

Few would argue that cable networks - even the ones like FX which have to worry about advertiser reaction to edgy content - allow producers more creative freedom than they can get in the big-network world. The care and feeding cable executives give to show runners has become an industry cliche.

"AMC uses the word `quality' all the time. They really mean it," said Matt Weiner, creator of Mad Men. "The first note I got from the network, was, `Can you make it more like it was in the script?' I was like, `Excuse me?'"

What's clear is that the business pressures afflicting the broadcasters are increasingly forcing them to depart from the traditional "department-store" programming model and focus on lowering costs and trying to stem ratings erosion.

Meanwhile, cable, desperate to make an impact in a cluttered market, is stepping up efforts to chase the brass ring of "prestige" original series.

"It's not fair to dis network TV," said Showtime entertainment president and veteran producer Robert Greenblatt. Cable, he observed, merely has many advantages from the quality-programming standpoint: "We don't have to put on filler. We don't have to worry about characters who aren't `sympathetic.'"

With accolades for shows like Californication and Damages, that seems undeniably true - and a hint for the future once the strike is settled.

"There's great excitement in cable right now," Greenblatt said. "It's sort of cable's moment."

Scott Collins writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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