Commentary: HBO is proof you don't need dramas to make a dramatic impact

Issues make observers question the event's relevance

The whispers started as soon as the 2008 Primetime Emmy nominations press packets were distributed at the TV academy bright and early Thursday morning: "Oh man, it's so sad about HBO." "Did you see what happened to HBO?" "Poor HBO, what are they going to do over there?"

Yes, it was all so very tragic. The King of Quality had failed to land an outstanding drama series nomination for the first time in a full decade. You have to go back to 1998, which is so long ago that someone named Bush wasn't even president. HBO's only chance this year was "The Wire," which Emmy voters had ignored for so long they clearly were stumped when it came to figuring out a way to stop ignoring it.

So after years and years of "The Sopranos" (the 2007 drama series winner), "Six Feet Under" and "Deadwood," HBO as of Thursday had been reduced to the ranks of category washout, leaving us all to wonder whether the nation can rally in the face of such unfathomable trauma.

The scoreboard: ABC 2, Fox 1, Showtime 1, FX 1, AMC 1, HBO 0.

Say it ain't so, Tony Soprano!

Beyond this, we have the reality and the facts. Not that we usually allow them to get in the way of a good story, but let's at least consider them.

Here's the truth: HBO received 85 Emmy nominations Thursday, nine more than any other network. It claimed the most-nominated program of the year in the epic miniseries "John Adams" and snared three of the top six in the overall nomination tally -- the other two being its original telefilms "Recount" (11 nominations) and "Bernard and Doris" (10). That gave it three projects with double-digit nomination attention. No other network had more than one.

Four of the nine nomination slots for top made-for-TV movie and miniseries belong to HBO, which has pretty much owned the longform Emmy categories the past 14 years. No other network could claim more than one nomination entry in the two categories last week.

Oh, and in the movie/miniseries lead actor and supporting actor categories, HBO merely swept all 10 spots. That's right: 10-for-10. No single network has ever claimed all of the nominees in two different categories in a single Emmy year. When it comes to this kind of stuff, HBO remains so dominant that it's really kinda ridiculous.

But lest it seem HBO has been reduced to a one-trick longform pony, it also fared better than expected in comedy series, claiming two of the top slots with "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage." Only NBC, with "30 Rock" and "The Office," fared as well.

So let's cut to the bottom line: HBO no longer is a drama powerhouse, particularly with "The Wire" having gone bye-bye. But it still has "In Treatment" and "Big Love," both of which most broadcasters no doubt would welcome with open arms, as well as the sexy and provocative "Tell Me You Love Me."

They've also got an Oscar winner named Alan Ball doing a show about vampires called "True Blood," bringing back the guy who gave them "Six Feet Under."

In comedy, it still has "Curb," "Entourage" and the offbeat "Flight of the Conchords," which people I respect think is far more amusing and inspired than I do and is becoming a cult smash. This is in addition to the movies and miniseries that continue to define the network and drive the subscriber base, the latest example being the superlative Iraq War-themed mini "Generation Kill" running Sunday nights through Aug. 24. And that's not to mention a documentary unit that still churns out top-drawer material year after year.

No, HBO hasn't come up with another "Sopranos" to replace the one that departed so memorably a year ago, but no other network previously managed to create one in more than 60 years of TV, either.

At the risk of sounding like one of HBO's publicists (No! Anything but that!) maybe we should cut these guys a little bit of slack during a time of executive/programming transition. I mean, I like a good tear-'em-down story as much as the next hack. But with all due respect to the HBO Is Dead movement, I'm not really sensing the need for hospice care just yet.

The Emmy nominations don't really bear out the end of the HBO era so much as the rise of the AMCs and Showtimes and FXs. It was bound to happen. In part, HBO has only itself to blame for setting such a high standard and exercising a decent measure of arrogance while doing it. Yet, if 85 nominations is incontrovertible evidence of a fatal nosedive, I'd say everyone's in big trouble.