Cable shows represent almost half in drama category


When "The Sopranos" took home its second and final Emmy Award for outstanding drama series last year, it seemed that the cable industry might be heading for mothballs, at least when it came to awards. Broadcast network hits like NBC's "Heroes," Fox's "House" and ABC's "Lost" looked set to provide the television academy years of excuses for not nominating cable shows in the drama category.

So when the nominations for outstanding drama series were announced July 17, cable programmers had reason to celebrate. Cable had not ceded ground post-"Sopranos" and had actually surged forward. In the drama series category, cable's representation has been redefined to include not only premium Showtime, but also basic cablers AMC and FX.

"That we have A&E, AMC, Bravo, FX, TNT and all of these basic cable networks doing drama is attributable to the fact that HBO was able to do a drama," notes Todd Kessler, co-creator of FX's "Damages." "We're standing on the shoulders of a lot of work that has come before us, and FX is standing on the shoulders of HBO. It's great, and it's long overdue."

Uncharted Territory

Cable shows represent almost half of the dramatic series nominees this year, an enormous jump. But history favors broadcast: Since the first premium channel nomination in 1999, cable shows have only taken home the outstanding drama series category twice, both times for "Sopranos."

That likely gives broadcast offerings some measure of relief, but this season the Emmy nominations are sailing in uncharted territory since no nonpremium, non-network show has ever been nominated (though PBS programs won in 1974 and 1975, and National Educational Television won in 1969). Given the short-term memories of Emmy voters and the landscape of television today, however, those anomalies are ancient history.

While there is a slew of new faces at the party this year, the network invitees are far from novices. "Boston Legal" (ABC), "House" and "Lost" all have prior nominations -- "Lost" actually won in 2005. This may bode well for ABC and Fox, since in 15 of the last 20 years the winning drama had already been nominated at least once and five of those winning shows repeated the success. Judging by that, "Lost" may have a statistical edge.

Another show with a potential edge -- at least in terms of the number of voters who might have seen it -- is Showtime's "Dexter," which slipped onto the CBS airwaves when original programming ran low due to the WGA strike.

"Showtime has never been considered a network for destination television," says the show's executive producer John Goldwyn. "But with the repurposing of ('Dexter') for CBS, a lot of people saw the show. For us it was the most fantastic marketing bonanza. As producers, it was a giant win because it meant that so many more people got access to the show and 'Dexter' became destination television, and that helped redefine Showtime."

"Boston Legal" had to wait in the wings for two years before earning its first nomination last year. With a team of talent tearing up the acting categories (including James Spader, William Shatner and Candice Bergen), this year "Legal" may hit a stride that pushes it to the top.

"It took us awhile to find the perfect voice for this show," notes Emmy-nominated director and producer Bill D'Elia. "This is as untraditional a legal show as you're going to find. In fact, in the first few years, (creator/executive producer/writer) David E. Kelley really was not sure about whether to submit as a comedy or drama."

New Kids on the Block

Still, no one should count out the newcomers. The presence of three first-time nominees all hailing from cable would seem to indicate that the desire for new, fresh contenders might finally be powerful enough to tip the voters toward an outsider. Then again, "Lost's" 2005 win was the last time a first-year drama took home the prize.

For "Mad Men" creator Matt Weiner, the honor is about more than just a statue -- it's about bringing cable into the spotlight.

"I feel particularly proud because AMC is the only one of these companies that's independent," he says. "This channel is different. It has a point of view. (Former AMC executive vp programming and production) Rob Sorcher and (senior vp scripted original programming) Christina Wayne had an attitude about television that was completely fresh. They were treating me as if they were going to be my audience, not my evil overlords. In the end, they're very literary and intelligent people who love the show."

Perhaps more important, cable devotees aren't the only ones paying attention to the up-and-comer: Broadcast insiders are keeping an eye on the competition, too.

"I don't watch a lot of television, (but) I've seen every episode of 'Damages' and 'Mad Men,'" D'Elia says. "Those shows are deliberately doing what ('Boston Legal') accidentally did. They are looking at the landscape and saying, 'I think we'll do things a little differently.' These shows are different, and they're being recognized because of it."

And the Nominees are ...

Outstanding drama Series

"Boston Legal" (ABC)

"Damages" (FX)

"Dexter" (Showtime)

"House" (Fox)

"Lost" (ABC)

"Mad Men" (AMC)

Behind the Noms
Three things you didn't know abut this year's drama nominees

1. "Boston Legal" co-stars James Spader, far right, and William Shatner, near right, are the only two actors to win Emmys for playing the same role on two different shows (first on "The Practice" and then on "Legal").

2. Mad Men's" Robin Veith went from writer's assistant (to series creator Matthew Weiner) to Emmy nominee for outstanding writing in just one season, after she co-authored the season finale, "The Wheel."

3. "Damages'" Zeljko Ivanek and "In Treatment's" Gabriel Byrne are both first-time Emmy nominees with Broadway backgrounds: Ivanek has three Tony nominations, and Byrne one.