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Primetime Emmy Recap: Big Night For Dark Horse

Los Angeles— AMC thundered out front like a horse out of nowhere to beat broadcast and cable competition to the “outstanding drama series” Emmy for its critically acclaimed series Mad Men, the first time a basic-cable show has won in that category.

The network also copped the best actor Emmy for Bryan Cranston, the star of its other original series, Breaking Bad. Both were unlikely victories.

After all, Mad Men, though critically acclaimed, had fewer than 1 million viewers each week in its first season — a fraction of those watching other nominees, such as ABC's Lost. And AMC's other big winner, Breaking Bad, suffered “season interruptus” due to the strike by the Writers Guild of America, getting just seven episodes on the air in season one.

AMC general manager Charlie Collier said that the network did not get behind a great lobbying campaign.

“These are people's passion projects,” he said. Collier added that as a movie-focused network, AMC creates an environment where “cinematic TV can live. Fans say (the series) are like a movie every week, on film.”

AMC also benefits from the fact that, unlike broadcast networks, it's not struggling to fill 20 or 30 primetime slots every year, said Rainbow Media Services president Ed Carroll.

“We will continue to produce the stuff we love,” he said. AMC will stick with a strategy that is 90% classic movies, with two to three series a year and a miniseries event every other year, he said.

Mad Men became the first basic-cable show to be named Outstanding Drama Series. Creator Matt Weiner also was named the best drama writer for one of the episodes of this show about Madison Avenue executives in the 1960s. Breaking Bad won the statuette for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Cranston, who stars in the Vince Gilligan-created series about a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a meth dealer to support his family after he is diagnosed with cancer.

“I thought I was the dark horse,” said a shocked Cranston backstage after the Emmy telecast Sept. 21, noting the short exposure for his series. Breaking Bad is on a “small network” and not enough people know about it yet. (AMC hopes to leverage the Emmy and get people hooked on the series by running a Breaking Bad marathon Oct. 1, beginning at 8 p.m.)

Weiner, asked backstage about the distinction of being the first basic-cable show to be named outstanding drama, said he is amazed there is still such a “segregated caste system.”

“The same companies own the broadcast and cable networks. I don't know why there's a distinction,” he added. He also expressed disappointment that none of his large and talented cast was asked to present at the marquee event.

FX's original Damages also seduced voters, winning statues for star Glenn Close and supporting actor Zeljko Ivanek. Asked to compare the experience of working in film versus television, Close responded that she doesn't differentiate: the actress goes where the material is, and always has. She noted in the early 1980s, when she accepted a role in the controversial incest-themed TV movie Something About Amelia, she was told by her agent that working in television would hurt her career. Today, she's “proud to be on basic cable.”

She added that she's thrilled with her FX series, calling it “the ride of my career.”

“I can't wait to see where our writers will take us next year,” she said. FX has picked up Damages for a second season.

Audiences don't distinguish between broadcast, premium cable and basic cable, and now the Emmy voters have caught up with viewers and acknowledged that parity, according to FX Networks president and general manager John Landgraf. FX is no stranger to the Emmy: Michael Chiklis' win as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for The Shield in 2002 was a first for basic cable.

Overall, an Emmy win “confers prestige on the television series and on the network where it appears,” Landgraf said.

And while an Emmy can help raise a show's visibility, he pointed out that some series inherently have a more narrow appeal, so the award may not translate to huge audience gains. For example, Landgraf described Mad Men as “a very niche show” that may not have broad appeal, Emmys notwithstanding. He also said that while Damages is “a deliciously commercial show,” it is serialized and demands a lot of attention from audiences.

But an Emmy stamp could help boost DVD sales for a TV show, and could translate to higher CPMs from advertisers for a network like FX, according to Landgraf.

The basic-cable networks joined perennial awards power HBO, which collected an armful of statuettes for John Adams. The adaptation of David McCullough's book beat the former record for most wins by a TV miniseries, which had been held by Angels in America. That HBO production won 11 statuettes, while John Adams won 13 of the 26 awards for which it was nominated.

Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney and Tom Wilkinson each earned Emmys for their roles in the historical miniseries, while screenwriter Kirk Ellis was also honored.

Giamatti said he was “surprised, definitely,” that he won for what he described as a very tough job, the equivalent of making several feature films in just six months.

Why hard?

“It was long, hard and I never shut up in it,” he said of the historical epic.

For her part, Linney said the toughest part about filming the historical saga was “when it ended. It was one of the best jobs I've ever had,” she said, adding the experience has turned her into a history buff.

Ellis was irked when he came backstage, complaining that the Emmy producers devoted 30 minutes on air to reality shows but when he hit the stage, the “wrap it up” light was already flashing. Apparently, people who write content don't count, he huffed.

But he had nothing but kind words for HBO, noting that the premium network insisted the series be ready for air during primary season. That timing helped hit a popular nerve, he said, noting that the miniseries has sold 500,000 DVDs.

HBO's Recount was also embraced by voters, who named it the best TV movie and its director, Jay Roach, as best director.

Jeremy Piven of HBO's Entourage won his third consecutive best supporting comedy actor Emmy, and he said it was more surprising than his first win.

“The show is just getting better,” he said. When someone asked whether the other guys in the ensemble in the show would be jealous of Piven's awards success, the actor said his fellow actors “understand that another man's success will never take away from their own.”

A reporter mentioned that Piven needs two more wins to eclipse the record in the category set by actor Don Knotts.

“That's all I'm focused on,” he joked. “I wake up every morning thinking, 'When am I going to take Don Knotts down?'”

Linda Moss contributed to this report.