When HBO's Angels in America won its 11th Emmy for outstanding mini-series last night, it earned a place in the record books -- on the same line as ABC's 1976 movie Eleanor and Franklin -- as one of the two most honored programs in television history.
The HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play about AIDS won every major award for which it was nominated, including Kushner for writing, Mike Nichols for directing and Al Pacino and Meryl Streep for acting.
In doing so, the ground-breaking production also surpassed as most honored mini-series in history the landmark ABC production Roots. Adapted from Alex Haley's book, that 1977 program described an African-American family's journey through slavery and won nine Emmys.
"There are some roles that are so well-written, you practically start winning awards the moment you get the role," said Mary-Louise Parker as she accepted her award for best supporting actress.
HBO's victory last night marks a sweeping change in the television landscape. In recent years, the major networks, which once ruled the airwaves with a mixture of drama and comedy, have taken a lower road in their hunt for reality TV ratings. HBO, meanwhile, has steadfastly focused on quality drama.
Last night, that strategy paid off. The cable network overwhelmed its competition and won 16 awards.
"HBO is on a mission with the Emmys to prove that it is great," said Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys, the definitive book on the awards history.
"A victory like this sends a message: If you take artistic chances and make the financial investment, and if you are committed to not making cookie-cutter television, you can be as successful as HBO."
Though Eleanor and Franklin, a made-for-TV movie about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, has won 11 Emmys, it is the two mini-series that epitomize television at its risk-taking best. Both Roots and Angels, which looked at politics and the AIDS epidemic in 1980s America respectively, were ground-breaking series that tackled social issues previously ignored by television.
"Roots and Angels in America serve as perfect bookends for the great era of the socially relevant TV miniseries," said Robert J. Thompson, professor and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
"But they are also different in one huge way: Roots came at the absolute heyday of the mini-series, when it was still a three-network universe and a hit mini-series could attract a huge audience and instantly jolt the culture. Angels comes in a new era of fragmented audiences with HBO gloriously resurrecting the genre in its hunt for prestige."
Airing on eight consecutive nights from Jan. 23 through Jan. 30, 1977, Roots was seen nightly by 80 million viewers. As word of mouth built, the audience for the final night grew to 110 million viewers. By the finale, an average of three out of every four Americans watching TV that night were tuned to Roots.
Seemingly instantly, the mini-series expanded the nation's knowledge about slavery and the African-American experience and triggered a boom in genealogical research. At the time, Vernon Jordan, former president of the Urban League, called the series "the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America."
By contrast, only 4.2 million viewers watched Angels on the first night it aired; 2.93 million on the second. Yet it was cable TV's highest-rated movie or mini-series of the season.
Nonetheless, the effects of Angels in America did radiate out into the culture well beyond the telecast itself.
"Both were blockbuster, must-talk-about television that really became water-cooler discussion," said Suzanna Danuta Walters, a professor at Indiana University and author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America.
Though not nearly as pervasive, the discussion engendered by Angels also enriched American society in far-reaching ways.
"Whereas Roots was the African-American event of its time and primarily discussed only in those terms, Angels was talked about in terms of a lot of things beyond its gayness. It was talked about in terms of the politics of the time, of the crisis around AIDS, of the Reagan administration, and about the transformation of a Broadway play into a television event thanks to HBO."
While last night's awards will surely lead to praise for HBO -- and more criticism of the networks -- there is an irony that is often overlooked: HBO's commitment to excellence is a business strategy.
"The reason for HBO's success and the network's failure when it comes to Emmys is that they are operating under two totally different models of how you make money in television," said Douglas Gomery, media economist and historian at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"The core HBO audience is mainly upper-middle-class, well-off people who say they don't watch TV -- except for HBO," Gomery said.
"And how do you get those viewers? By convincing them that there is something special or prestigious about your network -- which is exactly what happens when you win Emmys the way HBO does."