Emmys' Basic Instinct

The nominations for the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards arrived last week, and if the world didn't know it already, the results show basic cable programming has hit its stride.

Once again, HBO led the pack with 85 nominations, including 23 for John Adams, the most of any program, with nods for best miniseries, director and lead and supporting actors. But HBO's success is not news.

What is different are the nominations for AMC's Mad Men and FX's Damages. Mad Men received 16 nominations, including best drama and a best actor nod for Jon Hamm. Damages was also nominated for best drama. It's the first time in Emmy history two basic cable shows ever vied for the award.

“It's a total sea change, where not only are you getting some of the most unique and original programs on basic cable, but they're able to push the envelope,” says Robert Oswaks, marketing president at Sony Pictures Television.

“It's validating on multiple levels,” says Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC. “It's incredibly validating of our strategy: to create an environment where the best of Hollywood could be comfortable and thrive.” (See Fifth Estater, p. 36.)

AMC's Breaking Bad was also recognized with several nominations, including an acting nod for series star Bryan Cranston.

NBC's 30 Rock led the comedy nominations with 17, including acting nods for Alec Baldwin and series creator and producer Tina Fey.

That so many nominations went to cable productions is a testament to the original work being done there. That most of the nominated projects have audience levels well below the threshold of what would be considered viable on broadcast television further reinforces a business model that banks on quality begetting eyeballs.

Even broadcast's 30 Rock—and Emmy perennial The Office, which picked up nominations for best comedy and acting nods for Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson—are hardly network ratings juggernauts. And ABC's Pushing Daisies had little time to build traction in its strike-shortened first season but was still recognized in the best drama and best actor categories.

John Adams is an interesting success story, racking up healthy DVD sales since its run on HBO. The seven-hour miniseries, which featured singular performances from nominated stars Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney, also had the considerable task of making the birth of a nation entertaining.

“This was not a show where we dumbed down American history in order to pursue some kind of populist or commercial agenda,” says director Tom Hooper. “We really put the integrity of the storytelling at the center of the film.”

HBO also dominated the made-for-TV movie category, with 11 nominations. Bob Balaban was nominated for his supporting role in Recount, and for directing HBO's Bernard and Doris on a shoestring budget of $500,000. He was preparing to take the movie to film festivals before Colin Callendar, president of HBO Films, stepped in, giving it a home and a little polish in the form of a score and post-production work.

“We didn't have distribution,” Balaban says. “We didn't have trailers. We barely had film in the camera. And you can certainly make a movie for, say, $50,000, but it is very, very hard to make a movie about the richest woman in the world [eccentric tobacco heiress Doris Duke, and her butler Bernard Lafferty] without any money. Everything was a struggle, even to find good flowers to put on the tables. We had to go steal them from friends' houses.”

Some executives and stars were just happy to get another chance to actually win a statue. At Universal Media Studios, head Katherine Pope was heartened that House star Hugh Laurie received a third nomination for outstanding lead actor in a drama, but won't be satisfied until he wins one. “All right already,” she says. “He is so overdue.”

Likewise, Warner Bros. has its fingers crossed that Two and a Half Men can finally break through on the best comedy front—or star Charlie Sheen can win an outstanding lead comedy actor award after being nominated for the third year in a row.

Universal's Pope was encouraged by Friday Night Lights' first-time nomination for best drama, considering its low ratings and fragile survival.

At CBS Paramount, VP of Communications Lauri Metrose says the studio was elated that The Amazing Race will “have the opportunity to go for a record six [wins] in a row” in the outstanding reality/competition category. But Race is another series where critical acclaim doesn't appear to translate into ratings.

Of course, the Emmy telecast itself is not as popular as it once was, in large part because cable has fragmented the audience. Ratings for the Emmy broadcast fell to 4.3 in the adult 18-to-49 demographic (5.7 million viewers in that group) last year, down from 7.1 (9.2 million) in 2003.


But networks believe Emmys hold enough sway that they continue to tout them in show promotions. And they continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year trying to persuade Academy of Television Arts & Sciences members to vote their way. Those costs, however, may be declining as networks increasingly “go green” and post “For Your Consideration” screeners online. “Ecological, economical, and it took care of any concerns we had about piracy because you couldn't download the shows,” says Showtime's Richard Licata, who made the network's series available on the Web this spring.

Some executives say the awards can be a benefit on Madison Avenue. “It's good for your advertisers because they know they're supporting top-shelf work and it's good for our affiliate relationships…it's good that they see their investments are being rewarded,” says AMC's Collier.

FX chief John Landgraf also says Emmy success has persuaded advertisers to support some of his network's edgier fare, but acknowledged that “there has never really been a strong, established correlation between Emmy wins and ratings.” But, he adds, “That doesn't mean they're not important or valuable.”

David Goetzl contributed to this story.