HBO DOMINATED the annual Emmy nominations once again but faced stiffer competition than usual from rival networks that have adopted the premium cable channel's approach to inventive dramatic series.
The network drew 85 nominations, one fewer than last year, mostly for its miniseries, movies and comedies, while its tent-pole dramatic series were largely overlooked by Emmy voters. ABC placed a relatively close second, with 76.
The recognition comes at a transitional period for HBO, which is working to reboot its lineup after the departure of signature programs such as "The Sopranos."
Misfires like last summer's "John From Cincinnati" and low viewership for new series such as "Tell Me You Love Me" fueled perceptions that the channel's lock on zeitgeist television was slipping.
"We're not oblivious to the stories the press have been writing, so it's especially meaningful that in this year we've done as well as we have across all genres," said Michael Lombardo, president of HBO's programming group and West Coast operations.
For all of its recognition Thursday, however, the network's dramatic series were mostly snubbed, garnering only six nominations. "In Treatment" got four nods, including one for lead actor Gabriel Byrne, while Ellen Burstyn was nominated for her work as a guest actress on “Big Love.” “The Wire” was recognized for outstanding writing in its final season, its second Emmy nomination ever.
HBO executives attributed the small number of drama nominations to the stiff competition they face from other cable channels and the broadcast networks, which now embrace the kind of provocative storytelling that HBO once pioneered.
"The landscape has changed dramatically," Lombardo said. "There are a lot of networks making excellent shows. We're excited about it; we're challenged by it."
This marks the eighth year in a row that HBO has won the most Emmy nominations of all television networks. But its margin has been narrowing. In 2004, it swamped the competition with 124 nominations, while runner-up NBC had 65.
Last year, HBO had 86 nods to ABC's 70. This year, second-place ABC had just nine fewer nominations than HBO.
Steve McPherson, president of ABC Entertainment, credited the network's large share of nominations to its relationships "with some of the finest talent in this industry."
Basic cable also made gains this year, owning two of the six outstanding drama series nominations: FX's “Damages,”“Damages,” and AMC's “Mad Men.” HBO did not have a program nominated in that category.
"Every year it gets harder and harder to differentiate your programming," Lombardo said. "To be recognized this year with the number of nominations we have is particularly sweet."
The bulk of HBO's Emmy nominations came for its movies and miniseries, led by "John Adams," its adaptation of the David McCullough biography, which got 23 nods, more than any other television program. "Recount," the dramatic retelling of the contested 2000 presidential election, earned 11 nominations.
HBO's comedies also did well. "Entourage" received five nominations, including one for outstanding comedy series, while "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Flight of the Conchords" each got four nods.
The network's dominance was especially apparent in the categories of best lead actor and best supporting actor in a miniseries or movie; all 10 nominees performed in HBO programs.
"The fact is that HBO is doing the kind of films and the kind of stories that the movie industry used to do," said Kevin Spacey, who was nominated for best actor for his work in HBO's movie "Recount." "You look at a lot of the specialty sections of studios that have gone under . . . and there's no doubt in my mind why filmmakers and screenwriters and actors are ending up at a place like HBO. They do it better than anybody."
Tom Wilkinson, nominated for his performances as Benjamin Franklin in "John Adams" and James A. Baker III in "Recount," said he's long been impressed by the network's "range and the willingness to gamble and kind of intellectual rigor."
Both projects performed solidly in the ratings for HBO, although they did not draw the sizable audiences the network has attracted in the past.
Episodes of "John Adams" averaged 4.7 million viewers cumulatively each week, while the numerous airings of "Recount" drew about 5 million viewers altogether.
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Here are the most nominated shows and nominations by network.
Nominations by show
"John Adams": 23
"30 Rock": 17
"Mad Men": 16
"Pushing Daisies": 12
"Bernard and Doris": 10
"Academy Awards": 9
"Tin Man": 9
Nominations by network
The Emmy Awards will be telecast on ABC from the Nokia Theatre in downtown L.A. on Sept. 21.
For the last eight years, HBO has dominated Emmy nods, but its rivals are gaining.
CBS : 47