Bully for HBO, Basic Nets Say

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The headlines last week trumpeted Home Box Office’s Emmy Awards triumph — 16 awards in the major primetime categories — as continuing evidence of cable’s ascendancy.

But what about basic cable?

The only ad-supported cable network to land Emmys on Sept. 19, when the key primetime awards were handed out, was Comedy Central, with two for The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.

SOME GOLD IN PAST

While HBO has dominated the scene in recent years, the Emmy wealth was still more widely distributed than during this year’s 56th annual awards. In the past, cable channels like Turner Network Television, A&E Network and Showtime went home with the golden statute in marquee primetime categories.

Two years ago, Michael Chiklis pulled an upset by winning best actor in a drama for his work in FX’s then-freshman cop drama The Shield.

The Shield was a real breakthrough,” said Tim Brooks, Lifetime Television’s executive vice president of research.

Even last year, basic cable had a bumper crop of wins. TNT’s Door to Door won six awards, including outstanding movie. USA also got a big boost when Tony Shalhoub won an Emmy for best actor in a comedy for his work in Monk, while sister service Sci Fi Channel bagged the best miniseries award for Steven Spielberg’s Taken.

The post-mortem on this year’s major primetime Emmys is that no one — not basic cable or the broadcast networks — could stop HBO’s juggernaut miniseries Angels in America.

“Eleven of the categories were dominated by this Angels in America rout, which was unstoppable, not because it was HBO, but because you had a Pulitzer [Prize] and Tony Award script that was in the hands of Hollywood maestros like [Mike] Nichols, [Al] Pacino and [Meryl] Streep,” said Tom O’Neil, author of The Emmys: The Ultimate, Unofficial Guide to the Battle of TV’s Best Shows and Greatest Stars and host of the entertainment-awards Web site, GoldDerby.com. “That hogged 11 categories right there. Normally we see major winners, especially Turner and Showtime, in some of those acting categories.”

BULLISH ON '05

As Michael Wright, TNT’s senior vice president of original programming put it, “Hello: It would have been tough for anybody this year to stand out in that kind of company.”

Many basic-cable network officials maintained that this year was unique in that respect, and that they expect to be back on the primetime Emmys Award track next year.

'SOPRANOS’ BREAKTHROUGH

This go-round, industry programming executives were pleased that a cable network finally claimed the best dramatic series distinction, with HBO’s The Sopranos copping that honor with its fifth nomination.

In the past, basic and premium cable services have only been able to consistently win Emmys in primetime categories such as miniseries and original movies.

“TNT, USA and A&E had broken through in long form,” FX spokesman John Solberg said. “From a series perspective, there’s only two years, three years of history there. The Shield opened a door that had never been open to basic cable before.”

Years ago, TNT was doing relatively big-budget historical movies and miniseries, according to Brooks, author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.

“During the late ’90s they [TNT] were doing a lot of very high-profile, very expensive, very prestigious-looking miniseries,” Brooks said. “They’ve moved away from that. They’re not doing Andersonville. … When you do less of that stuff you win less Emmys, because that’s the kind of stuff the Emmy people like.”

Comedy Central president Doug Herzog ran USA last year when Shalhoub won his Emmy. This year, Shalhoub was nominated for best actor in a comedy but lost to Kelsey Grammer of NBC’s Frasier, which just ended its run.

“Basic cable, we’re the latecomers,” Herzog said. “HBO has a pretty long history in the original business. But I think we’re gaining ground fast, whether it’s with Jon Stewart, Dave Chappelle, Nip/Tuck or The Shield.

“The landscape is changing. We [Comedy Central] won two [primetime Emmys] this year. … There’s a real place for basic cable in this mix, and a growing place.”

USA’s well-regarded Traffic was nominated in the miniseries category this year, but against the Angels onslaught, “we knew that there wasn’t a chance,” said Bonnie Hammer, USA and Sci Fi president. “But again, to be nominated in a significant category that wasn’t a creative-arts category, cable has definitely gotten to a point where it can not only compete and get a nomination but — as proven with Taken, as proven with Monk — we can win.”

Next year, Hammer has high hopes USA’s high-rated and critically acclaimed The 4400 will score some Emmy nominations.

Wright said Emmys are more important to the business strategy of HBO, which doesn’t sell advertising, than to a network like top-rated TNT.

“Who doesn’t love the association with an Emmy win?” he said. “But on the list of priorities, it wouldn’t be the No. 1 reason we develop, order or program a television show.

“It’s fantastic when we do get that notice, but it’s icing on the cake, to use an over-used phrase. It’s your peer group saying, 'That is superior work.’ But it’s not necessary to our success. The network is No. 1 right now … We are a commercially supported network, and as such, we need viewers.”

In the past, most basic-cable networks haven’t been as aggressive and clever as HBO in terms of campaigning to win Emmys, according to O’Neil. For example, networks need rebroadcast Emmy-worthy programming during the nomination period and need to invest money to distribute campaign videotapes to voters, he said.

EMMY GURU HELPED

But some basic-cable services have gotten more active and have taken the necessary steps. FX, for example, hired an Emmy “guru” to devise the campaign to secure Chiklis’s nomination and win, O’Neil said. Showtime mounted an active campaign that yielded 18 overall nominations, yielding two Creative Arts wins.

Emmy wins don’t mean much to viewers, but they carry clout in Hollywood’s creative community. When Taken won, A-list producers and actors started pitching projects to Sci Fi Channel.

“It did have a marvelous halo effect,” Hammer said. “The show itself and the ratings basically created, or helped to create, some momentum in the channel … People would call us unsolicited and said they loved Taken, liked how it was marketed, and had an idea and would like to come in.”

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association saw the Emmy situation as a glass half full, not half empty. That’s because in total — for the first time ever — cable surpassed the broadcast networks in Creative Arts and Primetime Emmy wins, 50 versus 37 for broadcast.

HBO won 32 Emmys total, with A&E collecting four. Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Discovery Channel, Showtime and USA each won two. Bravo, Lifetime, FX and Nickelodeon each got one.

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