Emmy nods reflect the strength of basic cable

July 18, 2008|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Once upon a time, there was a land called Basic Cable TV that was filled with televangelists, infotainment, Atlanta Braves baseball, wrestling and endless reruns of the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show.

That world of 1980s cable TV seemed centuries away yesterday as AMC's Mad Men, a brilliant series about post-World War II Madison Avenue, and FX's Damages, a hard-edged legal drama starring Glenn Close, made history as the first basic cable series to earn nominations as best dramas. They joined a field of finalists for the 60th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards that was dominated by cable productions - at the expense of the broadcast networks.

Premium cable has been at the forefront of the Emmys the past five years, thanks to HBO. But with yesterday's record haul of nominations, advertising-supported cable channels like AMC, FX and TNT can call themselves the home of quality TV as well.

Viewers have already delivered their verdicts, making such series as TNT's The Closer, a cop drama starring Kyra Sedgwick, one of the most popular series on television; its audience routinely tops that of most dramas on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox or the CW.

"These nominations are definitely a case of the Emmys catching up with the audience and rewarding basic cable channels for making some very smart, quality programming moves in the last few years," says Douglas Gomery, professor and scholar in residence at the Library of American Broadcasting at the University of Maryland, College Park.

As Gomery sees it, most Americans have "more viewing options" than time to sample, so they narrow the channels they routinely visit to "five or 10" favorites.

"And the basic cable channels, by putting their resources into quality dramas like Mad Men and series with stars like Kyra Sedgwick, are now among the favorites of millions of Americans - many of who have dropped ABC or NBC or CBS from their top 10 lists to add the cable outlets," says Gomery, author of A History of Broadcasting in the United States.

HBO led all networks with 85 nominations. The subscription-based channel also had the program that received the most nominations, John Adams, a prestige miniseries about the second president of the United States. It gained 23 nominations, including one for Paul Giamatti as best actor for his portrayal of the founding father.

But the big news was 16 nominations for the first year of AMC's Mad Men, including one each for Jon Hamm as best actor and John Slattery as best supporting actor. They play New York advertising executives in the 1960s drama that is the true heir to the one-time claim of The Sopranos as the best drama on television.

Charlie Collier, vice president and general manager of AMC, didn't need any help from an academic expert to appreciate the importance of having the most-nominated drama on TV.

"This is a milestone moment for AMC," Collier said. "To be considered among the best on television by the television academy of arts and science is a truly distinct honor."

The first season of Mad Men has already been honored with two Golden Globes (one for best drama, and the other for Hamm as best actor), as well as a Peabody Award.

The Emmy category of best dramatic actor typifies the shift of quality shows to cable that was underscored by yesterday's nominations.

In addition to Hamm, the group includes Bryan Cranston (AMC's Breaking Bad), Gabriel Byrne (HBO's In Treatment), James Spader (ABC's Boston Legal ) and Hugh Laurie (Fox's House).

"If you really want to see the trend, look at movies and miniseries," says Gomery. "This is territory that the networks used to own, and now it's all cable."

All of the best miniseries nominees aired on cable except for Cranford, an English drama that was on PBS. All of the nominated made-for-TV movies also aired on cable, except for ABC's A Raisin in the Sun.

The best actor and actress nominees in movies and miniseries are even more striking. All five men are from cable productions, as are four of the five female nominees. And those nominees are among the most respected in film and television: Ralph Fiennes, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Spacey, Susan Sarandon and Laura Linney.

While several basic cable outlets had their best years ever, such as the SciFi channel scoring 16 nominations, the morning-after chatter is sure to focus on best dramas, where history was made.

The Emmys will be awarded Sept. 21 during a live telecast on ABC. Joining Mad Men and Damages in that prestigious drama category will be Dexter (Showtime), House (Fox), Lost (ABC) and Boston Legal (ABC).

Even though six nominees were selected rather than the usual five, HBO's The Wire failed to make the cut. The Baltimore-based drama was one of 10 series under consideration.

The Wire did receive one nomination yesterday - for writing in a drama. The series was also nominated for a writing Emmy in 2005, but the award ultimately went to Lost.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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