Analysis: New Drama Series, Overlooked Comedies, ‘Friday Night Lights’, Jimmy Fallon and ‘SYTYCD’ Make A Splash
63rd Primetime Emmy Nominations

If the four major broadcast networks, which recently made a deal to continue airing the Emmys for the next eight years, were worried the show was becoming one big commercial for their cable upstart rivals, this morning’s nominations for the 63rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards (to be broadcast on Fox on Sept. 18) prove they would be right to be concerned.

With the notable exception of the Comedy Series (and to a lesser extent Reality) category where they still dominate, the four big nets were virtually AWOL in the showcase Drama Series, Variety Series and of course, Movie and Mini arenas. In the overall nomination totals they once again badly trailed HBO, which with 104 nominations (three more than last year, including a leading 21 nods for the mini Mildred Pierce) more than doubled the combined total of ABC and CBS. In fact, ABC with 40 was down from last year’s 63 and CBS with 50 was down from 2010’s total of 57. NBC, thanks to its Thursday night sitcoms, stayed even with last year’s 46, while Fox managed 42 nods, also down a few from 2010. To add insult to injury, cable networks scored big nominations with shows like Conan and Friday Night Lights that once were on NBC and basically ignored in major Emmy races when they were. You know there’s trouble when only four broadcast series got higher totals than something that premiered on the obscure ReelzChannel (after being rejected by the History Channel! — more on that later).

Although AMC’s Mad Men once again led the competitive Drama Series category with its highest yearly total ever of 19 nominations and Showtime’s Dexter got its fourth consecutive nod, there was thankfully fresh blood here with two new HBO entries, Boardwalk Empire (18 noms) and Game of Thrones (13), bringing the pay cabler roaring back into play where it once dominated with The Sopranos. And Friday Night Lights, a former NBC series jettisoned to the hinterlands of DirecTV, grabbed its first nomination in the category for its final season (and over any show NBC currently has kept on its air). Keeping the networks from a complete washout in the Emmy’s marquee category was CBS’ The Good Wife gaining its second nomination in as many years and nine noms overall. You go Good Wife!

Injecting a major category like this with so many newcomers to the competition is a good thing as the big complaint about the Emmys is the sameness year after year in a majority of categories. The Emmy show, no matter how you try to dress it up, is always a bit of Deja View.

Where the nets can obviously take some pride and comfort is in the Best Comedy Series category, which they completely control. Cable possiblilities like Hung, Weeds, Entourage, Californication and Episodes (which did pull a deserved writing and surprise Matt LeBlanc nod) were overlooked in favor of NBC’s 30 Rock and The Office, which are back to square off with ABC’s dominant reigning champ Modern Family (with 17 nominations, up from last year’s 14) and Fox’s big hope, Glee (with 12 and notably down from last year’s leading 19), though it was snubbed this year in writing, directing and lead actress (Lea Michele) and actor (Matthew Morrison) — not a good sign. NBC’s growing critical fave Parks and Recreation is notable for its first-time inclusion as well as the first nod in the category for CBS power comedy The Big Bang Theory. Perhaps Warner Bros’ relentless campaign to get this Chuck Lorre series in the big game finally paid off (they even made sure voters got a Monopoly-style game based on the series). It must be sweet considering the travails the powerhouse producer has had this season with that other show he produces (which did manage a nom for co-star Jon Cryer).

So it is all very nice  that there are some new kids playing in the sandbox and there were no glaring clunkers in the various races (well, except that ReelzChannel show, which I am getting to, don’t worry). It was particularly nice to see Justified’s Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins and especially Margo Martindale break through along with the writing, directing and acting of AMC’s mystery The Killing, but the TV Academy is still guilty of going for the most part with the  tried-and-true names they always have embraced. If you are a member of the club, you will get an Emmy nomination. It’s as simple as that. Voters tend to gravitate to names they know and like. Famously, Ellen Burstyn got nominated a few years ago for a 14-second flashback part in a TV movie, Mrs. Harris, just because she was Ellen Burstyn and her name was on the ballot. It led to a rule change regarding length of roles. It didn’t stop them from nominating Burstyn, though, who showed up among the nominees again two years later in a Big Love episode and then finally winning for a Law & Order: SVU episode the very next year. Take a look at some of this year’s (perennial) acting nominees that Emmy voters can’t seem to ignore — ever — no matter what they’re in:

Kathy Bates, Lead Actress in a Drama for Harry’s Law. This is her ninth nomination for nine different projects. They like you, Kathy, they really like you.

Christine Baranski in The Good Wife. Ninth nomination (1 win).

Andre Braugher in Men of a Certain Age. His seventh nod reps that show’s only mention despite a big TNT campaign for it.

Beau Bridges in a guest role in the otherwise completely snubbed Brothers and Sisters. His 14th Emmy nomination (and 3 wins).

Edie Falco, Nurse Jackie. Nine nominations and four wins.

Tina Fey , 30 Rock, Saturday Night Live. 19 nominations (7 wins). If she sneezes, she gets nominated.

Michael J. Fox, The Good Wife this time. 13 nominations (5 wins). If they see his name on the ballot, it’s almost a guaranteed nomination.

Mariska Hargitay, Law and Order: SVU. Eight nominations (1 win). Ditto for Julianna Margulies, The Good Wife.

Alfre Woodard, True Blood. 16 nominations (4 wins).

Justin Timberlake, Saturday Night Live. Seventh nomination (2 wins).

Betty White, Hot In Cleveland. 17 nominations (5 wins). Her first nom came in 1951, making her 60-year streak as a nominee almost as old as the Emmys themselves — a record for anyone.

Cloris Leachman, Raising Hope. 22 nominations (8 wins — a record for an actor). Mary Tyler Moore Show, Phyllis, Malcom in the Middle, TV movies, this show. If she’s eligible, she’s in.

Then of course there are those who get nominated for the same single show over and over and never win. Bill Maher is king of the pack in this regard with 27 nominations (including this year) for his various shows but no Emmy at home on the mantel. With Bryan Cranston (winner for the last three years) ineligible due to Breaking Bad’s late premiere date this year, the Lead Actor in a Drama Series category presents an interesting dynamic with perennial losers Michael C. Hall of Dexter (5 nods), Jon Hamm of Mad Men (4 nods, 6 overall) and Hugh Laurie of House (7 straight noms) all duking it out against lesser-nominated competitors like Kyle Chandler, Steve Buscemi and Timothy Olyphant.

And of course in the Lead Actor in a Comedy category you have 11-time Emmy nominee (and two-time winner) Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock trying to make five-time loser in the category, Steve Carell, go zero for six. But both can take comfort in the fact that if they are on TV in any given season, the Academy is gonna nominate them. Last year’s winner, Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons, will try to stop them.

Of course the TV Academy is well aware of dealing with the sameness of their contest every season. It’s the nature of the television beast. There was even talk earlier in the year on the Board of Governors about creating a New Series category to guarantee new blood in the contest, but it didn’t fly — yet.

The shows and stars that get the lion’s share of nominations are the ones that tend to be around for a while, so they get noticed. Newbies like this year’s success stories Boardwalk Empire and Game Of Thrones and last year’s freshmen breakthroughs Glee and Modern Family show it can be done (especially with big bucks behind you), but it’s hard to break into this club. Certainly every year the networks, cable and broadcast, and production companies keep ratcheting up their campaigns to do just that. For some it obviously worked. For others it didn’t, like USA Network, which had a lavish ad campaign for their many shows but reaped only a single nomination for Sound Mixing on Burn Notice. All that money for a Sound Mixing nomination?

That’s nine less mentions than the ReelzChannel received this morning, which finally brings me to their less-than-distinguished nominee for Outstanding Miniseries or Movie, the critically lambasted The Kennedys. The Academy showered a whopping 10 nominations on this controversial mini,  which the obscure Reelz only got by rescuing it from oblivion when it was dropped by History. Voters in this “prestige” category snubbed more worthy contenders like the brilliant French mini Carlos (on Sundance Channel), BBC America’s Luther and PBS’ reinvention of Upstairs Downstairs. It seems name recognition may be what drew the voters to The Kennedys. It’s still a brand that sells and a subject that endlessly fascinates. But c’mon Academy, did you really watch this thing?

Congratulations to all the first-timers and old-timers among this year’s Emmy nominees. You are all winners for the next two months. Soak it up.