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Can the big guys relax? Not yet

Challenged by pay-TV rivals such as HBO, networks are reclaiming viewers. But now they face a new threat: basic cable.

July 25, 2006|SCOTT COLLINS

IT seems like it was just yesterday that the Emmy Awards were the primary battleground between the broadcast networks and a then-surging HBO.

The broadcasters felt threatened by the pay cable network's rising market share and increasing critical acclaim for hits such as "The Sopranos," "Six Feet Under" and "Sex and the City." HBO dominated the Emmy nominations in 2002, and executives worried they couldn't compete with the creative freedom on pay cable, which depends on subscriber income rather than advertising.

So when Emmy organizers threatened to take that year's annual awards telecast to HBO, the networks went apoplectic. The broadcasters vowed a nasty boycott of the ceremony that could have ended up dividing the TV business. Only a flurry of last-minute deal-making kept the Emmys on free TV, rotating annually among ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

This year, HBO still leads the overall field, with 95 total nominations. But the premium cable network's individual offerings are casting a much shorter shadow this time around. Instead, the traditional broadcasters -- and basic cable -- are holding sway. The most nominated series is Fox's spy drama "24," with 12. And the most nominated program overall is TNT's old-fashioned western miniseries "Into the West," with 16.

Many critics are bitterly complaining that the academy once again squandered the opportunity to recognize innovative work, such as HBO's "Big Love." New rules that enable a panel of Emmy voters to pick nominees from a prepared list of contenders have come in for especially heavy attack.

Changes in the way the academy conducts business may well have played a role in this year's nomination surprises. But far more relevant changes are transforming the TV industry itself -- changes the Emmys only reflect.

In maybe the most noteworthy development, HBO's once-enviable stock seems to be diminishing by the day. Partly that's a simple matter of the programming attrition that affects every network sooner or later.

"Sex and the City" is long gone. "Six Feet Under" picked up nine Emmy nods -- all for the show's final season. "The Sopranos" got seven, but it'll wrap its run next year. Another soon-to-end series, "Deadwood," wasn't even in the running.

HBO series stumble

HBO's newer series aren't picking up nearly the same kind of buzz, either in Emmy nods or in ratings.

"Entourage" got five nominations but wasn't among the contenders in the comedy series category. The costly "Rome" received eight nominations, but had to do without the outstanding drama nod that HBO could have used to promote season two. Similarly, "Big Love's" three nominations came in categories networks don't typically brag about: directing, casting and main title design.

Meanwhile, broadcasters have learned a great deal about reconnecting with their audiences, beyond just following the latest trends in reality programming. Their greatest strides have come in the one-hour dramatic format. "24" has struggled for years to break through as a hit, finally coming into its own during the 2005-06 season. But some of the most nominated series this year were immensely popular nearly as soon as they debuted, including ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" (11 nominations) and "Lost" (nine).

Then, of course, there's Fox's redoubtable talent competition, "American Idol," which picked up eight nods, more than any other unscripted show has ever received.

But this turn of events hardly means the broadcasters can relax. Indeed, there's now a cloud on the horizon that threatens more trouble than HBO ever did, both in terms of Emmy symbolism and in the cold, hard reality of Nielsens.

In the last three or four years, basic-cable networks have aggressively ramped up their production of original series. FX currently has three series with nearly as much buzz as any on HBO: "Nip/Tuck," "Rescue Me" and "The Shield."

The rise of basic cable

Two original basic-cable series, TNT's "The Closer" and USA's "Psych," have set ratings records this summer. So did AMC's original miniseries "Broken Trail," a western starring Robert Duvall that's in the "Into the West" tradition and may end up netting a few Emmy nominations next year.

Although no basic-cable series has yet dominated the Emmys the way that, say, "The West Wing" and "Desperate Housewives" have done in recent years -- for example, "Rescue Me" merited only one nod this year, for lead Denis Leary -- such an outcome looks inevitable as networks pour more money into production. It's already happening in the long-form category, as evidenced by "Into the West."

As for the awards telecast itself, though, don't look for it to make its way onto basic cable any time soon. The broadcasters have the Emmy Awards locked up through at least 2010.

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