HBO's drama series Emmy lone cable success


It has happened only once since cable programming left behind the tattered remains of the Cable ACE Awards and finally became eligible for Primetime Emmy Awards consideration in 1988. The triumph of HBO's "The Sopranos" in 2004 remains cable's lone win in the outstanding drama series category, and as of today, HBO remains the only cable network even to land so much as a nomination. That's happened 10 times now, all since 1999, with "Sopranos" earning six of those 10, "Six Feet Under" three and "Deadwood" one.

But with "Sopranos" out of the running after this year, it seems that a door might at last swing open for another, non-HBO cable series to crash the top drama list. Such worthy contenders already exist, such as FX Network's "Rescue Me" and "The Shield," Showtime's "The Tudors" and "Dexter," TNT's "The Closer" and the Sci Fi Channel's woefully neglected "Battlestar Galactica."

So what gives? Considering that the audience uses a single remote control to access channels no matter their mode of transmission, why hasn't the playing field leveled when it comes to the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honoring individual series for the most prominent drama category?

"Some of it is about brand identity," asserts John Landgraf, president and GM at FX, which has yet to land one of its acclaimed dramas among the nominees for top drama. "The voters tend to take HBO more seriously than they do (Sci Fi), for example, which obviously hurts the chances of 'Battlestar Galactica' -- which holds its own with any show out there."

Age might be a factor, Landgraf adds, when it comes to awarding the most prestigious prizes, such as drama and comedy series and lead actors/actresses. He explains that the voting constituency of the Television Academy "tends to skew to the older side. And that works against a young-skewing network like us. It is, however, ridiculous that no cable show except 'The Sopranos' or maybe a 'Deadwood' can get in for outstanding drama. I think 'Sopranos' is one of the great dramas ever made for TV, but we have shows that measure up favorably to any season 'The Sopranos' has ever produced. And it simply isn't acknowledged."

As creator and executive producer of "The Shield," Shawn Ryan feels Landgraf's pain, though his series did manage a historic Emmy breakthrough when "Shield" star Michael Chiklis pulled off one of the primetime awards' greatest upsets in winning the lead dramatic actor statuette in 2002 -- the first time a basic cable network performer earned a lead acting honor.

"That was so huge for everyone connected with our show," Ryan acknowledges. "We've also been able to earn supporting nominations for Glenn Close and CCH Pounder, as well as writing and directing. But there seems to be a barrier blocking shows like ours from making it that final step to be recognized alongside the drama series elite."

Ryan says that FX and its fellow basic cablers are forced to compete as underdogs in terms of garnering Emmy attention, which makes Chiklis' win all the more remarkable.

"We have fewer (Television) Academy members involved in the voting process by virtue of being on basic," Ryan says. "I mean, we've won a Golden Globe, an AFI Award, a Peabody. We certainly haven't gone without. But it's just a fact that the more popular shows in terms of viewership tend to rise to the top when it comes to awards attention."

Others cite a provincial element at work. Certainly, many members vote exclusively for their own home network or studio -- but James Duff, creator and executive producer of "Closer," thinks there's snobbery involved, too.

"I think it might be perceived as a blow to broadcast network viewing to say that basic cable is turning in stuff that's every bit as good as they produce or better," Duff says. "What's more, we do it on a far more limited budget."

Mark Stern, Sci Fi executive vp original programming, suggests that voter discrimination against his "Battlestar" doesn't stop at the show's network of origin but extends to its genre as well.

"There is a tendency to dismiss ('Battlestar') as just another science-fiction show, and one done originally in the 1970s at that," Stern observes. "The sci-fi genre invariably gets short shrift, so we see it as our mandate to try twice as hard to overcome the innate prejudice. We've been able to win Emmys with our miniseries, but drama series is a whole other level."

While the cable discrimination issue is one that somewhat continues to frustrate FX's Landgraf, he remains philosophical that his network's Emmy time will come.

"We're a young brand, really only 5 years old, and we're competing with networks that have been around for decades," Landgraf says. "Our weaker distribution makes it necessary for us to take bigger risks and be bold in a way the bigger networks don't have to, but we're now a genuine part of the larger programming landscape. I appreciate that the (Television) Academy is constantly evaluating and revising its system to try to make the Emmys more an actual evaluation of quality work than a popularity contest."