Cable series take turn in Emmy spotlight

Tonight's 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be one we tell our grandchildren about, and not just because it's the year Sarah Silverman's late-night TV duet with film star Matt Damon, titled "I'm (Shagging) Matt Damon," was declared television's best original music and lyrics.

That milestone was reached last weekend during the non-televised "creative arts" portion of the annual orgy of trophy-dispensing. But even before that, AMC's "Mad Men" and FX's "Damages" already had made Primetime Emmy history: The stylish series about Madison Avenue in the '60s and the contemporary legal thriller are the first basic-cable programs ever to be nominated in a best series competition.

The Emmys will be shown at 8 tonight on ABC.

Yes, cable continues to chip away at broadcast TV's hold on the Emmython — old story. But this year, for the first time, basic cable has the momentum, also stealing some glam-category ground previously gained by premium cable networks.

So for instance, while "Mad Men" and "Damages" compete for that best drama series statuette Sunday night, HBO does not have a dog in that fight for the first time since 1998.

Additionally, "Mad Men" is this season's second-most-nominated series, having received 16 noms when the TV academy unveiled the list in July. This is stunning not only because it's a basic cable show that beat every broadcast TV series except NBC's "30 Rock" — which barely edged it out with 17 noms (the most ever for a comedy series, by the way) — but because it usually takes the TV academy a couple of years to notice a new series.

At press time, "Mad Men" was leading the series pack among Emmy wins with four trophies picked up last weekend (best cinematography for a one-hour series, best main title design, best art direction and best hairstyling for a single-camera series). ("30 Rock" was right behind with three Emmy wins.) Meanwhile, "Damages" had scored a nice win — best casting in a drama series.

Of course, HBO racked up the most nominations (85), as it does every year. But no HBO series earned more than five nominations — including best comedy series noms for "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage."

And after last weekend's portion of the two-night Emmy ceremony (winners in 70 categories, mostly tech, were announced Saturday), HBO heads into tonight's ceremony with the most wins — 16, half of them scored by the Tom Hanks-produced miniseries "John Adams." ("John Adams" is this year's most nominated TV project and is the most nominated movie or miniseries since "Roots" grabbed 37 noms in 1977.)

Even so, this year basic cable is the new black. And while, for sheer excitement, it will be hard to beat last weekend's second consecutive best reality series win for Bravo's "Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List" — during which Griffin observed that "it was hard to beat those meth heads on (A&E's) 'Intervention' ... and I think it's time somebody took those (expletives) at (PBS's) 'Antiques Roadshow' down" — Sunday night's show could make more ad-supported cable history.

Among basic cable's notable nominations are two AMC contenders for best lead actor in a drama series: Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad" and Jon Hamm of "Mad Men." They're joined by broadcast's Hugh Laurie (Fox's "House") and James Spader (ABC's "Boston Legal") and by pay cable's Michael C. Hall (Showtime's "Dexter").

Also, the five nominees for best lead actress in a drama series include basic cable's Glenn Close ("Damages"), Holly Hunter (TNT's "Saving Grace") and Kyra Sedgwick (TNT's "The Closer"). They outnumber broadcast contenders Mariska Hargitay (NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit") and Sally Field (ABC's "Brothers & Sisters").

And don't forget those two historic basic-cable noms for best drama series, competing against "Boston Legal," "House," "Lost" and "Dexter."

Ironically, while comedy has been declared comatose on broadcast TV, those networks still have a death grip on the comedy series derbies. That includes three of this year's best comedy series noms: "30 Rock," NBC's "The Office" and CBS's "Two and a Half Men."

And all but one of the contenders for best sitcom actor work in over-the-air TV, including "30 Rock's" Alec Baldwin, "The Office's" Steve Carell, "Pushing Daisies's" Lee Pace, and "Two and a Half Men's" Charlie Sheen, although basic cable's Tony Shalhoub (USA's "Monk") is a frequent winner here and is once again nominated.

Likewise the derby for best comedy series actress is ruled by broadcast stars: Christina Applegate of ABC's "Samantha Who?," America Ferrera from ABC's "Ugly Betty," Tina Fey of "30 Rock" and Julia Louis-Dreyfus from CBS's "The New Adventures of Old Christine," joined by pay cable's Mary-Louise Parker (Showtime's "Weeds").

Basic cable's gains are a mixed blessing for the broadcast networks, which for years have taken turns telecasting the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony. The companies that own the broadcast networks own few of the cable nets that have made Emmy inroads over the past several years (AMC is owned by Rainbow Media, for instance). This leaves broadcasters pondering why they're paying for the privilege of broadcasting what is, every year, becoming more of a three-hour plug for cable networks they have no interest in wishing well.

On the other hand, basic-cable nominees could be just the antidote they needed to counter HBO's gains of the past several years on Emmy night. Basic cable, after all, is in far more TV homes than is pay-cabler HBO.

On the other hand, does audience size really matter, when last year the Emmycast clocked its second-smallest audience record, 12.9 million viewers, while broadcaster Fox pulled off a record $580,000 per 30-second spot, according to Nielsen Media?

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