Looking over the Emmy nominations announced Thursday morning, you'd almost think that the TV academy was honoring two separate industries. For drama and made-for-TV movies and miniseries, it's HBO and its basic-cable cousins. For everything else, it's broadcast.
HBO, in the midst of a programming comeback, topped the overall count, with 104 nominations, or more than one-fifth of the total. The premium cable network's haul was led by 21 nods for the Depression-era melodrama "Mildred Pierce," 18 for the Prohibition-era drama "Boardwalk Empire" and 13 for "Game of Thrones," the last of which overcame voters' longtime aversion to the fantasy genre. The results were a notable vindication for a network that until now had difficulty recapturing the magic of a decade ago, when "The Sopranos" revolutionized the TV drama.
AMC's ad-industry period piece "Mad Men" — the drama winner for three years running — racked up 19 nominations, its most ever. Each of those shows delivers roughly one-tenth the audience of CBS' No. 1-ranked crime drama "NCIS," which has been conspicuous in its lack of love from Emmy voters. Overall, AMC got 29 nominations, and HBO's premium rival Showtime received 21.
But, in a sign of how lopsided the TV business has become, broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox controlled comedy and reality — more profitable genres that square better with their corporate parents' financial imperatives these days. All six of the nominees for comedy series are on broadcast TV, including CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" and NBC's "Parks and Recreation." ABC's sitcom hit "Modern Family" capped its second season with 17 nominations. Fox's singing smash "American Idol" grabbed 10 nominations, the most ever in its reality category.
Still, the acclaim is shifting more and more toward niche cable shows, which is hard to construe as anything but a slap at the expansive programming approach favored by the legacy networks. The nominations also may point to Emmy tensions down the road: After months of negotiations, the broadcasters in May agreed to carry the award telecast until 2018, despite years of griping from network brass that the Emmys tilt too heavily in favor of critical darlings on cable. Overall, broadcast networks received 221 nominations, compared with cable's 268 (last year, cable squeaked by, 248 versus 247).
"Cable has found a way to tap into a lot of frustrated creativity and exploit it financially," said Matt Weiner, the creator and executive producer of "Mad Men." "I can literally look at these shows on basic cable and pick where they would have been 10 years ago on network TV; some would not have been on at all.
"There's a lot of shows on here that [broadcast] network TV just can't do, they can't support it, because they don't deliver the mass audiences that they require. At the same time, audiences really like them and they have longevity and they succeed in all these different formats. Business models are very different than they used to be."
Alan Perris, chief operating officer of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, said the broadcast/cable split is to be expected. "Cable networks don't spend much time with comedy, and broadcasters don't spend much time with movies and children's programming," he said, adding: "Overall, I think it's a pretty fair process."
The nomination roster featured a few surprises, including acting nods for Louis C.K. on FX's critically acclaimed comedy "Louie" and Melissa McCarthy on CBS' sitcom "Mike & Molly," as well as 10 nods for "The Kennedys," the controversial miniseries that was booted from the History channel and wound up on ReelzChannel.
But it was HBO that ruled the day, which counted as a return to form for a network that a decade ago ruled the Emmys with "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City."
In fact, "The Sopranos" — the New Jersey mob story that in 2004 became the first cable show to win as drama series — continues to cast a long shadow years after ending its run. The drama series category includes a showdown between two former "Sopranos" writers: Weiner of "Mad Men" and Terence Winter of "Boardwalk Empire."
HBO submitted 39 series, movies and specials for Emmy consideration this year — a record for the network.
Even minus "Sopranos," HBO kept up appearances with lavish miniseries and TV movies. That tradition continued this season, as "Mildred Pierce," the domestic drama starring Kate Winslet, scored 21 nominations, the most of any program. An additional 11 came for "Too Big to Fail," HBO's dramatization of the 2008 financial meltdown on Wall Street.
But it's in original series that HBO really made progress this season. "Boardwalk Empire" — a period piece about fictionalized Atlantic City boss "Nucky" Thompson (Steve Buscemi, nominated in the lead actor category) — has struggled in the ratings but has become one of the network's most-honored dramas.
The tally for "Game of Thrones," based on George R.R. Martin's novels set in the mythical land of Westeros, included a nod for actor Peter Dinklage. Academy voters embraced the show despite a somewhat dicey history with past fanboy favorites, including "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "The X-Files."
"HBO has made a comeback in programming this season," said Brad Adgate, a programming analyst for New York ad firm Horizon Media, who added that it was still unknown what effect the new programs might have on HBO's subscriber tally, currently parked just below 30 million. "It also remains to be seen whether this next generation of original HBO series can match 'The Sopranos' and 'Sex and the City' as landmark television programs. The results at the Emmy Awards could help determine that."