Even at TNT, eyebrows were raised Thursday morning when the multigenerational saga "Into the West" topped all of last year's television shows with 16 Emmy nominations. In addition, TNT's series "The Closer," the highest-rated show for any ad-supported cable network, earned a best actress nod for its star, Kyra Sedgwick.
Across the board, there were more signs that basic cable has broken through to compete with network and premium cable in quality programming.
FX won eight nominations, the most it has had in a single year, including best actor for "Rescue Me's" Denis Leary. The Disney Channel received seven nominations, six of them for "High School Musical," a contestant for outstanding children's program.
Among other nominations, A&E; and the Discovery Channel earned prime-time Emmy nods in the outstanding made-for-television movie categories with "Flight 93" and "The Flight That Fought Back," respectively.
And Comedy Central received nominations for "The Colbert Report" and "The Daily Show."
"The cable networks have had consistent growth patterns, not just in ratings but in ratings and quality," said Michael Wright, senior vice president of original programming for TNT and TBS. "USA, FX, everybody is stepping up their game."
One reason for the improvement in quality, he said, is that viewers, especially the young, no longer distinguish among premium cable, network and basic cable. To compete, basic cable has been forced to spend more on quality and promotion, he said, which has paid off in increasing industry recognition.
"For years, the networks have tried to make you believe they're the only game in town," Sedgwick said. "It's not the case anymore. We can do rich, interesting stories. And people respond to it."
With all the attention, "it's easy to lose sight of the fact that it wasn't until four years ago that ad-supported cable even entered this game," added FX spokesman John Solberg. The channel's "The Shield" was the first such show to receive any major Emmy recognition, followed by USA's "Monk," FX's "Nip/Tuck" and others.
"The quality of television, especially ad-supported cable TV, has improved exponentially every year," Solberg said. "It really is amazing. A lot of people believe this is a new golden age of drama, there's such tough competition."