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Primetime Emmys: Cable Ready for the Spotlight

Basic cable is the star of the 60th Primetime Emmy Awards this year, while the broadcast networks are struggling to keep up.

Although premium-cable channel HBO garnered the most nominations, with 23, it's the basic cablers like AMC, FX and TNT who have come into their own this year, with a large portion of nominations in the top series and acting categories.

AMC received 16 nominations for its rookie dramas Mad Men and Breaking Bad, just behind NBC's 17 but ahead of ABC's 12. FX's Damages, a nominee for best drama series, and TNT's The Closer and Saving Grace all received several nods in the acting categories.

The Creative Arts Emmy Awards, held Sept. 13, offered what may be a prelude to a big night for cable at Sunday's Primetime Emmys. HBO's John Adams led the way with eight awards, more than twice the nearest broadcast competition, NBC’s 30 Rock, which won three. AMC’s Mad Men received four statues, while the Grammy Awards was the only other program from a broadcast network to manage three.

The cable networks see the spate of nominations as legitimizing their work. “It’s incredibly validating of our strategy to create an environment where the best of Hollywood could come and be comfortable and thrive,” said Charlie Collier, president and general manager of AMC, in July.

Others, however, are concerned that this will only contribute toward the awards ceremonies’ declining ratings. Fewer people watched the Emmy-nominated series this year than in the past, “and with a smaller audience aware of them, you have a decrease in rooting interest, which I consider to be a major factor in drawing audiences,” said John Leverence, senior vice president of awards for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS).

This wasn’t a problem for the academy when it first started giving out national awards in 1952. If a show wasn’t getting a substantial share, it couldn’t stay on the air. Now, 56 years later, the industry is evolving and the Emmy Awards are struggling to keep up.

Like many of the programs it gives awards to, the Emmy Awards is having a difficult time attracting a broader audience. The ceremony got one of its lowest ratings ever last year, with 13.1 million viewers. The 3 million-plus decline in viewership from 2006 suggests that with the increasing number of alternatives, viewers are becoming less inclined to sit through several hours of an awards show that may only feature one or two shows they watch.

Programming of high artistic quality still attracts a dedicated following, but it comes at the expense of the large, mass audiences that used to draw huge ratings for network shows. To keep up with the times, the Primetime Emmys turned to one thing that does seem to attract audiences in large numbers: reality television.

For 2008, the Academy introduced an award for outstanding reality host and arranged for the five nominees to co-host the primetime awards special. The hope is that these reality hosts can do the one thing Emmy-nominated actors are increasingly having a hard time doing -- bringing in an audience to the Emmys.

With Alex Weprin