HBO set a new standard of dominance in American television yesterday with 124 Emmy nominations - almost twice its nearest competitor, NBC, which had 65. Not even CBS in the early days of television, when it was known as "the Tiffany of networks," owned the high ground of programming the way these nominations say HBO does today.
The numbers across the board for individual HBO productions are eye-popping: 21 nominations for Angels in America, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that HBO made into a miniseries; 20 for The Sopranos, television's most acclaimed drama series; 11 for Sex and the City, the sitcom that dared to get serious in its farewell season; and nine for a single film, Something the Lord Made, about a white surgeon and a black lab technician who together pioneered heart surgery in the 1940s at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
But what makes the overall performance of the premium cable channel so impressive is that it comes in a society and television climate otherwise so fragmented. CBS had only two competitors, ABC and CBS, in the 1960s when it reigned. HBO has more than 200 today. This year, CBS got 44 nominations and ABC 33. Fox earned 31.
There was no shortage of theories yesterday as to how and why HBO managed to leave the networks eating its creative dust. Network TV is boxed in by forces that limit its artistic potential - federal regulations and the economics of appealing to the largest possible audience, say industry analysts. Pay cable TV, on the other hand, can say or show almost anything it wants as long as it pleases a large enough niche of subscribers to make it profitable.
Network "broadcasters need to get a large audience, and a large audience typically has been gotten by appealing to middle American tastes," says Lawrence Lichty, a film and television professor at Northwestern University. "We're playing on two fields with two different standards and two different sets of rules."
Howard Suber, who has taught film and television at UCLA for 35 years, said HBO has taken chances with young, unproven writers and producers, and that has led to smart and successful shows. But networks, he said, are unwilling to take those chances, preferring to go with proven commodities who have a record of delivering big audiences.
Word of mouth
And he says HBO has succeeded in targeting a niche audience willing to pay for what it considers better TV programs - an audience that has created significant buzz for HBO's shows and convinced others to subscribe. (HBO has about 40 million subscribers; the networks reach 108 million homes.)
"They're signing up specifically because you're at work, you're talking to your friends and they say, 'Did you watch The Sopranos last night?' and you have to say, 'I don't subscribe,'" Suber said. "The game of one-upmanship is what drives our culture at every level.
"And you don't want to have to admit to the people who are your friends but who are judging you that you have fallen behind culturally."
Suber says HBO programs are, in many ways, better than what can be found in network TV - in terms of writing, acting and direction. But he said they retain the basic format that has marked TV since its inception.
"I've sat there for several years as I watched both Sex and the City and The Sopranos saying these are soap operas for intellectuals," he said. "It's the soap opera structure, which is one thing after another every three minutes, but we get all the sex and nudity we can possibly handle."
Award-winning producers, writers and filmmakers who have worked with HBO over the years described a remarkably similar set of happy experiences with the network. They say there's a formula in place at HBO that brings out the best in them and makes for great television.
"They're fearlessly creative," said Michael Patrick King, executive producer of Sex and the City. "They totally embrace the risk of an idea from an artist. And then, they totally back it up financially and marketing-wise. They really put their money where their mouths are."
Susan Hadary won an Oscar with Bill Whiteford for King Gimp, a documentary shown first on HBO and then entered in Academy Award competition. It featured Dan Keplinger, a young artist from Towson who was born with severe cerebral palsy. She used the term "creative courage" to describe the HBO formula.
"They are willing to take risks that no one else will," Hadary said. "Lots of people were turned off by the subject matter of our film and by working with independent producers, but not HBO. And once you have an HBO credit, everyone wants to work with you."
The formula is fairly simple, Chairman and CEO Chris Albrecht, longtime leader at HBO, said yesterday in a telephone interview:
"We try to entice, invite and encourage talented people to bring their vision to us. And then we do everything we can to support them in executing that vision. That's pretty much the philosophy: Get the best possible people and totally support them. Hang out with talented people, and good things will probably happen."
The Emmys are scheduled to air Sept. 19 on ABC, with Gary Shandling serving as host.
Staff writer Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.
Angels in America (HBO) - 21 nominations
The Sopranos (HBO) - 20
The West Wing (NBC) - 12
HBO - 124
NBC - 65
CBS - 44
ABC - 33
Fox - 31
PBS - 27
And some of the Primetime Emmy nominees are ...
Nominees in select categories for the 56th annual Primetime Emmy awards:
Comedy Series: Arrested Development, Fox; Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO; Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Sex and the City, HBO; Will & Grace, NBC
Drama Series: CSI, CBS; Joan of Arcadia, CBS; The Sopranos, HBO; 24, Fox; The West Wing, NBC
Miniseries: American Family - Journey of Dreams, PBS; Angels in America, HBO; Horatio Hornblower, A&E; Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (Masterpiece Theatre), PBS; Traffic:The Miniseries, USA
Reality Program: Colonial House, PBS; Extreme Makeover:Home Edition, ABC; Penn & Teller: Bull----! Showtime; Project Greenlight, HBO; Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Bravo
Reality-Competition Program: The Amazing Race, CBS; American Idol, Fox; The Apprentice, NBC; Last Comic Standing, NBC; Survivor, CBS
Variety, Music or Comedy Special: A&E; in Concert: Paul McCartney in Red Square, A&E; The 76th Annual Academy Awards, ABC; Chris Rock: Never Scared, HBO; Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, HBO; Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now, HBO
Variety, Music or Comedy Series: Chappelle's Show, Comedy Central; The Daily Show With Jon Stewart: Show No 8037, Comedy Central; Late Night With Conan O'Brien, NBC; Late Show With David Letterman, CBS; Saturday Night Live, NBC
Made for Television Movie: And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, HBO; Ike: Countdown to D-Day, A&E; The Lion in Winter, Showtime; The Reagans, Showtime; Something the Lord Made, HBO
Lead Actress in a Drama Series: Jennifer Garner, Alias, ABC; Amber Tamblyn, Joan of Arcadia, CBS; Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NBC; Edie Falco, The Sopranos, HBO; Allison Janney, The West Wing, NBC
Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie: Emma Thompson, Angels in America, HBO; Meryl Streep, Angels in America, HBO; Glenn Close, The Lion in Winter, Showtime; Helen Mirren, Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (Masterpiece Theatre), PBS; Judy Davis, The Reagans, Showtime
Lead Actor in a Drama Series: James Spader, The Practice, ABC; James Gandolfini, The Sopranos, HBO; Kiefer Sutherland, 24, Fox; Martin Sheen, The West Wing, NBC; Anthony LaPaglia, Without a Trace, CBS
Lead Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie: Antonio Banderas, And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself, HBO; Al Pacino, Angels in America, HBO; James Brolin, The Reagans, Showtime; Alan Rickman, Something the Lord Made, HBO; Mos Def, Something the Lord Made, HBO
Lead Actress in a Comedy Series: Patricia Heaton, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Jennifer Aniston, Friends, NBC; Bonnie Hunt, Life With Bonnie, ABC; Jane Kaczmarek, Malcolm in the Middle, Fox; Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City, HBO
Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: Larry David, Curb Your Enthusiasm, HBO; John Ritter, 8 Simple Rules, ABC; Kelsey Grammer, Frasier, NBC; Matt LeBlanc, Friends, NBC; Tony Shalhoub, Monk, USA
Supporting Actress in a Drama Series: Robin Weigert, Deadwood, HBO; Tyne Daly, Judging Amy, CBS; Drea de Matteo, The Sopranos, HBO; Janel Moloney, West Wing, NBC; Stockard Channing, West Wing, NBC
Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie: Mary-Louise Parker, Angels in America, HBO; Angela Lansbury, The Blackwater Lightship (Hallmark Hall of Fame Presentation), CBS; Julie Andrews, Eloise at Christmastime, ABC; Anne Heche, Gracie's Choice, Lifetime; Anjelica Huston, Iron Jawed Angels, HBO
Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series: Doris Roberts, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Kim Cattrall, Sex and the City, HBO; Kristin Davis, Sex and the City, HBO; Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City, HBO; Megan Mullally, Will & Grace, NBC
Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development, Fox; Brad Garrett, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; Peter Boyle, Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS; David Hyde Pierce, Frasier, NBC; Sean Hayes, Will & Grace, NBC
Supporting Actor in a Drama Series: Victor Garber, Alias, ABC; Brad Dourif, Deadwood, HBO; Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos, HBO; Steve Buscemi, The Sopranos, HBO; John Spencer, The West Wing, NBC
Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie: Patrick Wilson, Angels in America, HBO; Justin Kirk, Angels in America, HBO; Ben Shenkman, Angels in America, HBO; Jeffrey Wright, Angels in America, HBO; William H Macy, Stealing Sinatra, Showtime
Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program: Billy Crystal, The 76th Annual Academy Awards, ABC; Elaine Stritch, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, HBO; Ellen DeGeneres, Ellen DeGeneres: Here and Now, HBO; Bill Maher, Real Time With Bill Maher, HBO; Tracey Ullman, Tracey Ullman in the Trailer Tales, HBO