Emmy noms bright light in troubled year

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The night of Jan. 13 was supposed to be Matthew Weiner's coming-out party on the big awards stage. After eight years of trying to get "Mad Men" made, his AMC show was the toast of the Golden Globes, winning best drama series and best actor for star Jon Hamm.

But Weiner was at a Los Angeles hotel that evening -- and not at the Beverly Hilton -- when the Globes winners were announced. The "Mad Men" team and AMC executives were huddled in a penthouse at Chateau Marmont, where they celebrated the wins.

That's because the traditional Golden Globes ceremony had fallen victim to the writers strike.

"I would've loved to have made a speech and thanked my wife on international television," Weiner says. "I've been rehearsing that speech since I was a little boy and would've loved to have given it."

Weiner and other 2008 Golden Globe winners will get a second chance at the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards Sunday, and despite the fact that the contract of another Hollywood union, SAG, has expired, there will be no labor-related disruptions to TV's biggest party of the year.

"The opportunity to have our television community get together at the Emmys is destined to resonate with show business," TV academy chairman John Shaffner says. "With all the negativity that's been bandied about, this is an opportunity to give everyone a sense of getting back to business as usual."

But is it really business as usual?

The protracted WGA walkout hit hard the already hurting broadcast TV industry and accelerated the network audience erosion.

Meanwhile, basic cable made big strides. In the final stretch of the 2007-08 season, when the broadcast networks came back from the strike in full force, they were still down in the ratings by double digits year to year while basic cable was up by a similar amount.

Basic cable's ratings upswing continued during the summer. It was supplemented by cable's breakthrough performance at the Emmy nominations, with record hauls for several nets, 16 nominations for "Mad Men," seven for FX's "Damages" and the two series landing first-ever best drama nominations for basic cable series.

Just as general audiences switched in droves to cable in the second half of the season, thanks to the lack of original programming during the writers strike, some TV academy members might have been steered to sample more cable series -- which were far less impacted by the walkout -- leading to cable's best-ever Emmy showing.

Charlie Collier, AMC general manager and executive vp, acknowledges that his network was fortunate that its shows were only minimally affected by the WGA strike.

"We did lose the last two episodes of 'Breaking Bad,' but (creator/executive producer) Vince Gilligan was able to compensate well," Collier says of the freshman series, which earned four noms.

For his part, John Landgraf, FX Networks president and general manager, believes it isn't so much the writers strike as the new selection formula implemented by the TV academy two years ago, with weight given equally to the larger voting membership and peer group panels, that has impacted the Emmy nominations.

"When you think about the fact that the broadcast networks are part of these massive organizations, and that many members of the academy are employed by them, it's kind of shocking that shows like 'Mad Men' and our 'Damages' were recognized as much as they were," he says. "The academy deserves a lot of credit for finally compensating for the broadcast member discrepancy by going with the new 50-50 system. The process has been more fair than ever this time."

Fans of HBO's "The Wire" -- again rebuffed by the academy in the best drama category -- would probably disagree. But Shaffner is heartened that, after several years of widespread discontent, there is less grumbling than usual this time around.

"The vibe involved much less of that 'woulda, coulda, shoulda' stuff," he says. "This is probably as good as it's ever going to get."

Of course, there's also the ongoing argument that the fairness pendulum may have swung entirely the other way, that cable originals have advantages over broadcast in three key areas: fewer restrictions on language, violence and nudity content (i.e., realism); a more leisurely production pace (cable seasons range from 10-16 episodes rather than broadcast's 22-26); and the ability of a cable network to pour more resources into marketing and promoting its shows by virtue of the fact it has fewer of them.

But ask cable programmers about it and they're not likely to boast about any creative or logistical benefits they have over their network brethren. "We only get about half the series budget that a network does and have to program to a much smaller niche," one basic cable series producer stresses. "So believe me, it isn't like we're gloating over here on Easy Street. We still fight an uphill battle in a lot of ways."

With all the gloom and doom of last season, there has been some good news for the broadcast networks lately. The Summer Olympics in Beijing were viewed by more Americans than any event in U.S. television history, bringing a massive amount of eyeballs to network TV. And several series, including the CW's "90210" and "Gossip Girl," got off to a strong start.

"We're heading into fall with the feeling that television is back on an upswing and is saying, 'We're going to entertain you, America, and we promise not to drop the ball,'" Shaffner says.

With the stakes so high for the broadcast networks, all trying to woo back viewers, the Emmy ceremony airing the night before the official start of the season could be more important than ever as a promotional platform. But the dominance of low-rated cable series and the very limited presence of popular broadcast series such as "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" threaten to drag down viewership for the awards show, which has been trending down.

Still, if there's any lingering bad blood as a result of strike-fueled acrimony -- and most think there can't help but be -- Shaffner is confident that Sunday's Emmys could have a mending effect on the TV industry that was so devastated both financially and emotionally.

"The Emmys arrive at truly such a fortuitous time for the whole country, really," he says. "We just saw the whole world come together in an inspiring way at the Olympics. There's this sense of change and unity due to the winding down of the presidential campaign. And now, with everything this business has been through with labor unions, the Emmys serves as a reminder that even during years of such difficulty and division, we still get to honor a pretty amazing group of people."
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