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Hail king cable

As if the writers strike wasn't enough to worry about, the networks take a Global beating from the foreign press. So much for the purported broadcast renaissance.

December 14, 2007|SCOTT COLLINS

Everyone knew that 2007 was a breakout year for big, noisy cable shows, so it wasn't necessarily surprising that the Showtimes and FXs of the world mopped up nominations for the 65th annual Golden Globes on Thursday.

It was, however, remarkable that broadcasters -- which as recently as a year ago were talking about a programming renaissance -- saw their series often reduced to asterisks or also-rans in the Globes derby. The magnitude of the imbalance was impressive, as was the timing, with the network midseason now threatened by a lengthy writers strike.

The curious state of affairs wasn't lost on nominees such as Christina Applegate.

"It's really lonely out here," said the actress, who was nominated for her new ABC comedy "Samantha Who?," one of only three fall broadcast premieres to get nods Thursday from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. (The others were "Pushing Daisies" and "Dirty Sexy Money," also on ABC.)

Of course, cable has been catching kudos for years, but this year, the laurels spread well beyond traditional favorite HBO.

For the first time ever, HBO and its creatively surging pay-cable rival Showtime had Globe contenders in both the comedy and drama categories, with spiky fare such as "Big Love" and "Californication." (HBO's "The Sopranos" was conspicuously absent, leaving fans to speculate that the controversial finale of the mob drama played a role in the omission.) Showtime's lush, racy costume epic "The Tudors" gave the network its first dramatic series nod.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 18, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
AMC series: In Monday's Calendar section, the Channel Island column said that "Mad Men" was the cable channel AMC's first original scripted series. In the 1990s, AMC had aired another original series, "Remember WENN."

On basic cable, AMC drew mention for its first original scripted series, "Mad Men," the period piece about the 1960s ad business. And cable series all but swept the dramatic acting categories, partly due to such summer series as FX's murder mystery "Damages" and TNT's crowd-pleasing cop dramas "Saving Grace" and "The Closer."

By comparison, broadcasters had very little to cheer about. With the exception of the ABC shows, Globe voters, like many viewers and critics, gave the cold shoulder to the networks' fall premieres, ignoring even the few shows that did win applause, such as CW's "Reaper" and NBC's "Chuck." There was a series nod for ABC's "Grey's Anatomy," but no love for its new spin-off, "Private Practice." NBC's "Heroes," nominated for best drama last year, didn't make the cut this time. Fox's representation was confined to the medical drama "House."

And CBS, America's most-watched network, was shut out entirely from the best-series derby, as it has been the last few years; its most recent contender was "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" back in 2003.

Such an outcome highlights the stark contrast between the programming strategies pursued in recent years by broadcasters and their cable brethren.

Referring to cable's strong showing, Jon Hamm, the Globe-nominated lead in "Mad Men," observed: "I think that's the reward for making quality television and not falling back on the 'unscripted' reality [and] game shows that networks seem to be putting all of their money and time behind."

Few would argue that cable networks -- even the ones like FX that have to worry about advertiser reaction to edgy content -- allow producers more creative freedom than they can get in the big-network world. The care and feeding cable executives give to show runners has become an industry cliche.

"AMC uses the word 'quality' all the time. They really mean it," said Matt Weiner, creator of "Mad Men." "The first note I got from the network, was, 'Can you make it more like it was in the script?' I was like, 'Excuse me?' "

Even producers still laboring in the network vineyards recognize this. Katie Jacobs, executive producer of Fox's "House," whose misanthropic, often unlovable title character is portrayed by Hugh Laurie, noted: "Despite being on a network, we get away with a lot," she said, adding: "Even if we were on cable, the show wouldn't be any different."

If so, that's a relatively isolated case. What's clear is that the business pressures afflicting the broadcasters are increasingly forcing them to depart from the traditional, "department-store" programming model and focus on lowering costs and trying to stem ratings erosion.

Meanwhile, cable, desperate to make an impact in a cluttered market, is stepping up efforts to chase the brass ring of "prestige" (read: often expensive) original series.

"It's not fair to dis network TV," said Showtime entertainment president and veteran producer Robert Greenblatt. Cable, he observed, merely has many advantages from the quality-programming standpoint: "We don't have to put on filler. We don't have to worry about characters who aren't 'sympathetic.'"

With accolades for shows like "Californication" and "Damages," that seems undeniably true -- and a hint for the future once the strike is settled.


Times staff writers Maria Elena Fernandez, Martin Miller and Lynn Smith contributed reporting to this column.

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