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Emmy Awards 2012: Cable dramas steal the show

'Homeland's' acting awards confirm the dominance of niche-oriented offerings over big-broadcast shows.

September 24, 2012|By Scott Collins, Los Angeles Times
  • Claire Danes, who won best actress for her role in "Homeland" at Sunday's Emmys, said the fact that President Obama was a vocal fan of the show was "hugely validating."
Claire Danes, who won best actress for her role in "Homeland"… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

The one-hour drama has a glorious history on broadcast TV, from the old days of "Gunsmoke" to acclaimed fare such as "Hill Street Blues" to current hits like "NCIS."

But at Sunday's 64th Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, the curtain was raised on a new order. The industry's attention has officially shifted to niche-oriented cable dramas, such as "Homeland," the terrorism thriller that in the evening's main surprise swept best drama and both major acting categories – a first-time achievement for premium cable network Showtime.

"I don't think anyone was expecting to be recognized like this right off the bat, but it feels pretty nice," said Claire Danes, who plays a troubled CIA agent in "Homeland," which with under 2 million total average viewers in its first season is about one-fifth the audience size of CBS' mass appeal crime hit "NCIS."

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The big broadcast networks still collected big prizes for comedy categories, most notably ABC's smash "Modern Family," which won best comedy for the third straight season.

But for the first time ever – in a factoid joked about by host Jimmy Kimmel on ABC's Emmy telecast - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox had no entries in the best drama category. Past nominees such as "Grey's Anatomy" and "The Good Wife" went ignored. The sole broadcast entry was PBS' early 20th century drama about the British aristocracy, "Downton Abbey," which was shut out of the major awards after winning last year in a different category, for best movie/miniseries.

Damian Lewis, the British actor who scored the night's biggest upset for his role as a U.S. Marine sent home after being imprisoned by al-Qaeda, told reporters backstage that TV is "the great democratic art form" and that "Homeland" had become "part of the national conversation."

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Part of that conversation, perhaps, but a relatively small part. "Homeland" earned almost unanimous praise from critics, but too few Americans have seen the show. The Emmy awards may help change that – not to mention the fact that President Obama has been a vocal fan of the Showtime series, which Danes told reporters backstage was "hugely validating."

Even so, the contrast is striking between the broadcast-dominated past and the cable-fixated present: Just six years ago, when Fox's similarly themed spy thriller "24" won the Emmy for best drama, it averaged a series peak of nearly 14 million viewers – seven times the figure for "Homeland."

The trend underscores how, as the number of TV dramas explodes due to increased production from basic cable networks, viewers are splintering into smaller niche audiences. "Downton Abbey" was the most-watched of the six best drama nominees, its second season averaging 5.4 million viewers.

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AMC's 1960s ad industry drama "Mad Men" – which failed to win best drama for the first time in five years – earned 3.5 million viewers for its season 5 premiere last March.

Cable's dominance extended to other categories as well. It was a breakout year for comedian Louis C.K., who got his start writing for David Letterman's and Conan O'Brien's broadcast talk shows. On Sunday, he won two Emmys for his work on FX, where his comedy "Louie" has become a cult favorite.

Kevin Costner and Tom Berenger won for their work on History's record-setting "Hatfields & McCoys" miniseries. Julianne Moore earned a statuette for her portrayal of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on HBO's controversial portrait of the 2008 presidential campaign, "Game Change," which also carried the best movie/miniseries category.

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The only categories in which broadcast networks did well was in sitcoms and reality series. Sitcoms – which continue to draw big audiences in repeats on local stations – remain a bulwark of the economic model for TV studios.

And reality shows have filled in time period gaps as networks have trimmed their investments in costly dramas. "The Amazing Race" won again as best reality competition series – a category it has dominated every year except one since 2003.

"Modern Family" and "The Big Bang Theory" represented the big broadcasters in the best comedy category. But even there, the big-network dominance appears to be ebbing.

Just last year, all of the six nominees were from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. Now just one-third were. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus carted off the actress prize for her HBO comedy "Veep."

Eric Stonestreet, who won again in the supporting category for "Modern Family," sounded an elegiac note that was intended as a commentary on how tastes might eventually bypass the show that brought him fame. But it could just as easily serve as an epitaph for broadcasters at the Emmys themselves.

"We know this isn't going to last forever," Stonestreet said. "We'll be the old show in a couple of years, or maybe even next year. Who knows?"

Times staff writers Amy Kaufman and Yvonne Villarreal contributed to this report.

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