EMMYS: Basic Cable Dramas' Basic Problem Is A Lack Of Academy Love

Adam Buckman is a contributor to AwardsLine

Boardwalk EmpireThe Emmy Awards is a game of winners and losers — in most categories, one winner, four losers. But for a whole swath of contenders in the highly competitive drama categories — hour-long dramas on basic cable channels — the challenge is as simple as just being allowed in the final competition. Because while some of TV’s most compelling one-hour dramas are now found on channels that lay between the broadcast and premium networks, these shows are consistently left out in the cold come Emmy time.

The attention in the drama categories still consistently goes to drama series on pay cable channels or broadcast networks. Never mind the actual awards — actual nominations for dramatic series on basic cable, though not unheard of, are still few and far between even as the ranks of quality dramas on basic cable have swelled in recent seasons.

Related: EMMYS: Drama Series Overview

This lack of love from the Emmys doesn’t go unnoticed by producers of some of basic cable’s most critically acclaimed shows. “I’m a little bit rankled at the Television Academy and the Emmys because Rescue Me received so little recognition,” says Peter Tolan, executive producer of the drama series about a group of New York City firefighters that he co-created with comedian Denis Leary. Rescue Me ended its seven-season run on FX last September. Over the years, it received eight Emmy nominations, winning one — a guest-actor Emmy for Michael J. Fox. Leary was nominated once in the best dramatic actor category and lost.

Rescue Me is one of several hour-long series on FX being pushed for Emmys this spring, along with Justified and Sons Of Anarchy. Another series, American Horror Story, which consisted of fewer episodes, is being entered as a miniseries.

Even with just four titles up for Emmy consideration, the FX stable of one-hour series would be impressive on any network. And basic cable these days seems awash with quality hours reflecting a wide variety of subjects and tastes. For example, USA Network has so many popular one-hour series that executives there made a conscious effort to boil down their Emmy hopes to a small group of shows and stars they felt would benefit most from Emmy consideration (if not actual awards): The lawyer series Suits and its two male co-stars, Gabriel Macht and Patrick J. Adams; Callie Thorne of Necessary Roughness; and Matt Bomer, handsome leading man of White Collar.

Over at Turner, TNT is entering seven shows: three very different cop shows in The Closer, Southland and Rizzoli & Isles; the sci-fi series Falling Skies; the lighthearted lawyer-buddy dramedy Franklin & Bash; the Timothy Hutton con-artist drama Leverage; and comedian Ray Romano’s well-regarded but ultimately low-rated drama about men at 50, Men Of A Certain Age.

That show also ended its run last summer, after just two seasons. In fact, a portion of the show’s second season was already put up for Emmy consideration in 2011; the second and final half of the second season is what’s eligible this time around. Although Rescue Me lasted longer and enjoyed a healthier viewership, both shows combined drama and humor, making them difficult to categorize and therefore a tough sell to the TV Academy members who vote on drama nominations, their creators concede. In addition, both shows were headlined by well-established comedians — Leary and Romano — trying their hands at dramatic acting, a concept the average Emmy voter may have had a tough time accepting, the show’s principals say.

“I will never be nominated” for a best dramatic actor Emmy,” Romano told Awardsline. “I get it, that [to the average Emmy voter] I’m the TV funny guy, the sitcom guy. Me and drama … you have to beat it over their head. You have to beat the sitcom perception off of yourself and that takes more [seasons than Men Of A Certain Age had].” For the record, Men Of A Certain Age, which won a prestigious Peabody Award in 2010, has been nominated for just two Emmys previously — both times for co-star Andre Braugher in the best supporting actor category. He didn’t win.

So who is garnering nominations and winning Emmys in the drama category in recent seasons? Pay cable’s HBO and Showtime — with shows such as Boardwalk Empire and Dexter, respectively — and a handful of shows on the broadcast networks like House on Fox, The Good Wife on CBS and Lost on ABC. Notable exceptions to the basic cable drought include two series on AMC: the critically lauded Mad Men, winner of the best drama Emmy for the last four years, and Breaking Bad, for which star Bryan Cranston has won three best actor Emmys. And Kyra Sedgwick finally won a best actress Emmy in 2010 on her fifth nomination for the lead role in TNT’s The Closer.

But for most of basic cable’s drama shows and their overseers, a winning strategy for getting Emmy voters to pay more attention and watch their shows more closely remains elusive. Part of the problem, producers and execs say, is that some of basic cable’s one-hour shows don’t fit the mold of the dramas that have received multiple nominations and awards in recent years. Mad Men, for example, and, in the years before that show’s dominance, The Sopranos on HBO.

It’s a problem of perception that not only afflicts the cable dramas with comedians in starring roles, but some of the dramas on USA and TNT that traffic in lighter subjects and themes than the decidedly darker dramas typified by a show like Breaking Bad.

“I think there is a perception perhaps that we are a very escapist kind of channel and therefore everything’s happy and sunny and that sort of cuts against what I think people think of when they think of awards,” said Bill McGoldrick, EVP Scripted Original Programming at USA. “When it comes to awards, sometimes the first place you go is dark. And I think that’s a little bit unfair. I think that our balance of humor and drama is similar to the balance of humor and drama in some of the shows that have won, be it The Sopranos or Mad Men.”

Of course, the underlying reason why it’s been so difficult for some basic cable series to break through the pack and gain recognition is because drama on TV happens to be flourishing these days. “It’s an impossible category, drama,” concedes Mike Royce, co-creator, with Romano, of Men Of A Certain Age. “The talent is crazy. I mean, between cable and the networks, every year in that best actor category you can’t even believe the people who aren’t in it. That’s how good it is.”

  1. How could the writer forget about Damages? Along Mad Men it was the first basic cable show to go all the way for a Drama Series nomination, it won Glenn Close 2 Emmys and 1 for character actor Zeljko Ivanek and was nominated in Writing, Directing, Sup. Actress and Actor Drama, Guest Actor and Actress Drama, multiple times.

  2. The Emmy wins for basic cable shows MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, and THE CLOSER are not just “notable exceptions.” I think they are proof that this isn’t much of a drought in the first place.

    1. Exactly. And apart from the Good Wife, how many Broadcast Dramas are going to get any nominations?

  3. I too am baffled by the lack of Emmy support for most of the shows on basic cable. Shows like Southland and American Horror Story are produced (both in front and behind the camera) with such perfection, that I have no idea why they aren’t nominated for Emmys as an overall show.

    Yes, the few, and I mean VERY few, lead actor/actress nominations for shows like this, are something to cheer about, but simply not enough.

    And USA is seriously overlooked when it comes to its work. I agree with the USA exec, where just because the industry has given that network this “happy/fun” tag line, shouldn’t shadow the work of the network.

    Gabriel Macht’s performance on Suits is completely worthy of any nomination! That show is wonderfully produced.

    1. I think the problem for USA it that it programs a lot of shows that people like but don’t love. Shows like BURN NOTICE and WHITE COLLAR are filled with good acting, decent dialogue, and handsome production values, but over the arc of a season or more, many of them end up as the thing you watch while folding laundry instead of the thing that inspires you to tweet around the water cooler. USA makes TV that people don’t care deeply about. (That said, I’m stoked about the new season of SUITS.)

    2. USA’s shows skirt the comedy/drama line so that puts them at a disadvantage when the Emmys separate everything into comedy and drama.

      Willie Garson, for example, gives a nomination-worthy comedic performance on White Collar, but since that show is probably submitted in the drama categories, he’s not able to compete.

  4. There are too many decent shows scattered amongst all the celebrity reality tv shows for them all to get nominations. The Academy Awards expanded some of their categories to 8 or 10 nominations, does the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences do the same?

    Men of a Certain Age was just getting better and better. One fixable concern I had was the sound mix of some of the dialogue scenes was just too low. Suddenly 60’s and 70’s music would come in at three times the level of some of the dialogue scenes, not a good idea on a show that doesn’t use a laugh track.

    If a viewer has to raise and lower the volume with their remote during the show, the mix is not quite right. Something as arcane as that could affect the attention of span of today’s viewer.

  5. I wouldn’t necessarily say it is a bias against basic cable. These type of things will happen when you only nominate a handful of shows. You certainly can’t nominate ALL the good ones. That isn’t to say that I disagree with the nominations per se, or the quality of the shows not nominated, or even how many shows get nominated. Just pointing out that it is a numbers game. If more shows from basic cable get nominated, we would have an article about how, pay cable, or broadcast was getting left out. There isn’t a conspiracy going on here.

  6. I agree suits is one of the best shows on T.V, but why no mention of The Walkig Dead. That is a very well done show, much better than American Horror Story. Also Burn Notice didn’t get a mention another favorite of mine, butto put Franklin and Bash in there is just blasphemy. Mad Men for sure and Breaking Bad. Next I think we will see Longmire on A&E in this list of good dramas. That show is looking like it might become something not yet seen.

  7. One has to consider that when the Emmys were begun there were only 3 networks to consider for nominations (and maybe a syndicated show or two). There were once Cable Ace awards to make up for the lack of Emmy love. That wouldn’t work today as it would seem like a 2nd tier award.
    Rather than expand nominees to 10 per category, how about splitting the major awards into Broadcast and Cable? 5 nominees for Best Cable Comedy/Drama and 5 for Broadcast? Not ideal, but it would double the nominations and make more shows eligible for attention.

    1. Then the Broadcast Award would seem like the second tier award. All the good contenders would still be competing with each other on cable.

      What chance does a very good show like Sons of Anarchy have, when there are at least four perennial nominees – Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Justified – plus Boardwalk Empire or Dexter, if they’re having a good year?

  8. This is such a baffling article because Mad Men continues to win best drama — the article should be more about how broadcast tv doesn’t get nominations — how the good wife really was so excellent the year before that it should have won best series. Perhaps Cable shows should have their own category because shows such as Revenge should be nominated — and it’s rather unfair that cable shows can produce as little as 6-13 episodes a season, whereas a broadcast show has to produce 22-24.

  9. They need to establish a Dramedy category which many cables should fall, separated from pure drama like a Damages. Stars like Matt Bomer really deserve some sort of nomination but hard to compete with pure dramas.

  10. Leverage is one of the best shows on TV now but it’s problem is that it isn’t quite a drama and its not a comedy either. Same seems true of shows on USA, TNT, and other cable stations. There needs to be a dramedy category. Because frankly I prefer a little bit of comedy mixed with my drama but its because of this mix these shows get ignored. They also need to add a Sci-Fi/Supernatural category. Shows like Supernatural, Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Once Upon a Time, etc shouldn’t be competing against The Good Wife or Breaking Bad. Apples to oranges. Maybe these ‘dramas’ are the best on TV but there are more shows that people watch that don’t fit into the pigeon hole of drama.

    1. There’s no reason sci fi/fantasy can’t compete with “regular” dramas. Case in point: Game of Thrones. Maybe the Emmys are unfairly prejudiced against the genre, but then GoT will get shut out of nominations (other than technical), and somehow I don’t see that happening.

      The Walking Dead is very good, but it’s like Sons of Anarchy, it’s competing against some extremely good shows for a limited number of slots. American Horror Story is nonsense and Once Upon a Time is a cute show, but hardly nominations worthy, except maybe for a couple of the actors.

  11. Couldn’t disagree more. White Collar and Psych are the only shows I make a point to sit & watch at air time. Anything else I DVR and watch while doing other things or just watch if it happens to be on.

  12. The Emmys are not about popular. They need to be about quality, the best of the best. But they also cannot be obscure for obscurity sake nor recognized simply because the rate. With all due respect, to BillMcGoldrick who is one of the good guys, USA shows are fun and escapist, but rarely if ever move the cultural dial. They make a tton of money, but they never imprint the culture in ways that are defining, Kyra Sedgwick finally wins because her show has been cancelled, but was there anything about her performance, or the sensibility of that show thT you couldn’t find on CBS? And there’s the rub. Programming a network is hard to do, ask Bob Greenblatt, finding a series that breaks through the clutter is even harder and when a Network manages its programming so intently, they kill any essence of what could have been defining about that show. The old HBO, FX, AMC and the new Showtime release writers and directors from the shackles of “Act break” notes and “the half-hour story turn”, instead opting for creators who know what they want to write about and why. This is a very important story but not for injustices, but rather for the need to even more strenuously steward the quality of the Emmys. There are enough awards shows for popularity. The Emmys should be for artistic achievement in the art form. To spend any time in this story on Men of a Certain Age is foolish, there was nothing Emmy worthy about the show, frankly it wasn’t even a good miss. The big issue facing the academy in this golden age of drama programming, is not to be lazy and keep giving awards to Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire because it’s easy. When Michael Chiklis won the Emmy, it sent shock waves through cable and defined FX’s journey as a channel. In truth, it opened the floodgates of creativity on cable. I’m not sure he ever received another nomination, but he didn’t need to. The Emmy stood for the quality of The Shield over the course of its run. Bold choices like that are what the academy needs to keep doing, not allowing 3 or even 4 of the writing nominations to be given to one show. The Emms, like the Oscars, still have the ability to validate cultural shifts and those privileged to vote should take their jobs more seriously than they do.

    1. Everything about your post I agree with except for your dismissal of Men of a Certain Age.
      I may be wrong but I have to think you , like many other people, saw very little of the show.
      I think people who stayed with it would be surprised at how emmy worthy it was.
      It won a peabody award after its second season, and last month a Television Academy honor for Quality Television.
      If you have seen it enough for your liking, that’s fine, but don’t let the ex-sitcom star or the subject matter fool you. This show was worth much more attention than it got.
      Check the critic meter site score for the show.
      They seem to be the only one’s who watched it and all of them, (yes all of them) gave it positive reviews.

  13. Suits and Southland absolutely deserve Emmy recognition. I understand why USA is often overlooked but I am hoping that will change with Suits. Southland has been snubbed for years but I hope that the incredible arcs this year portrayed by the likes of Regina King, Michael Cudlitz, and others will finally be recognized for what they are: phenomenal.

  14. Of the shows mentioned in this article, few actually deserve more Emmy attention than the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Justified – perennial nominees.

    It’s hard to break through that level of quality. Sons of Anarchy could stand some more Emmy luuuuv but American Horror Story and Falling Skies? The former, maybe for some of the actors, but certainly not for the writing!

  15. Drama shows on broadcast networks are available to just about every TV set owner.

    Drama shows on premium cable networks (like HBO and Showtime) have a certain cachet about them because they are seen on those networks.

    Drama shows on basic cable networks do not have the availability to almost every home or the cachet of the networks they’re on.

  16. With Mad Men and Bryan Cranston dominating their respective categories I don’t accept the underlying premise of this article. It is not like network dramas are eating up a bunch of drama nominations. Pay and basic cable get almost all the drama noms. There are just so many good dramas on tv right now and only a few Emmy nominations. Tv dramas have taken over as the premiere place for adult storytelling. It is almost completely non existent in movies and network tv is fairly hollow. Cable though, is an embarssement of riches. Cable dramas are getting snubbed because there are so many good cable dramas on and while I love the USA lineup those shows and performances can’t stand up to the competition. Those kinds of shows and roles used to have a good shot at Emmys but it is silly to promote them now. The drama landscape is hardcore and as good as it has ever been. The storytelling writing and acting on tv now far surpass in quality and quantity quality what the movie industry puts out.

    I do think there is still a potential bias in Emmy noms and we may see some network dramas get some noms that probably should go to basic cable shows. Good Wife has been the only drama on the networks on a level with cable. Some new shows started last year and i see them being a step below.

    All this is moot though as game of thrones should really win every single award.

  17. Insightful but must disagree on Men of a Certain Age, it was way different than TNT’s other stuff and very well done.

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