The Emmys have not always been in sync with what's happening on screen and in viewers' hearts. But yesterday's 59th annual Primetime Emmy Award nominations got one thing right: As network television sinks deeper into a dismal sea of reality TV with series like this summer's new No. 1 show, NBC's The Singing Bee, increasingly cable becomes the place for quality programming.
For the eighth straight year, HBO led all networks - this time with 86 nominations. The premium cable channel had both the most-nominated program, the made-for-TV movie Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and the top series, The Sopranos. With 17 nominations for Bury My Heart, an epic saga of the 19th-century mistreatment of Native Americans, and 15 for the mob drama The Sopranos, the tally for the two shows alone topped some entire networks' such as Fox (28) and PBS (24).
But the second-most-nominated program also came from cable - AMC's Broken Trail, a sprawling Western miniseries that received 16 nominations. The film launched the cable channel down a new path of original programming.
"What you're seeing is a reflection of the networks abandoning the expensive, high-quality movies, miniseries and some forms of dramas, and the cable channels like AMC, USA and TNT moving in," says Tom O'Neil, author of The Emmys, the definitive history of the awards.
The extent of HBO's dominance in high-end programming is hard to overestimate.
Not only were Sopranos leads James Gandolfini and Edie Falco nominated, but Michael Imperioli, Aida Turturro and Lorraine Bracco also were nominated for their supporting performances.
From the fierce social conscience of Spike Lee's Hurricane Katrina documentary, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, which earned six nominations, to the sexy mirth of Entourage, which garnered seven, HBO reigns supreme across all genres.
But the smaller AMC channel offers the best snapshot of cable these days: Last year at this time, it was committed to showing old movies. Now it has produced the runner-up for most-nominated made-for-TV movie or miniseries.
And last night, AMC premiered a highly promising new drama, Mad Men, about Madison Avenue advertising workers in the 1960s. The newcomer is created by Matthew Weiner, who was also nominated yesterday for his stellar writing on The Sopranos.
There are other stories in yesterday's nominations. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences was promoting the nomination of newcomers such as ABC's Ugly Betty and its star, America Ferrera, as evidence of an improved selection process.
But there are still problems. Take the case of HBO's The Wire, which is filmed in Baltimore. The drama, considered one of the finest on TV by a consensus of critics, failed to get a single nomination - despite HBO's spending $2 million to $3 million campaigning for its shows, according to O'Neil.
There are two reasons for the exclusion of The Wire, says O'Neil.
"First, there's geographic bias - it's set and shot outside of L.A., and so, it's considered by most of those who vote as being outside the Hollywood community," he says.
"No. 2, it's about low-life, despicable people, and the Emmys are very elitist. That's why Frasier and The West Wing would sweep top awards."
The Emmy telecast will air Sept. 16 on Fox from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
Select Emmy nominees
Nominees in major categories for the Primetime Emmys:
Boston Legal, ABC; Grey's Anatomy, ABC; Heroes, NBC; House, Fox; The Sopranos, HBO.
Entourage, HBO; The Office, NBC; 30 Rock, NBC; Two and a Half Men, CBS; Ugly Betty, ABC.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, HBO; Inside the Twin Towers, Discovery Channel; Longford, HBO; The Ron Clark Story, TNT; Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy, Lifetime.
James Spader, Boston Legal, ABC; Hugh Laurie, House, Fox; Denis Leary, Rescue Me, FX; James Gandolfini, The Sopranos, HBO; Kiefer Sutherland, 24, Fox.
Sally Field, Brothers & Sisters, ABC; Kyra Sedgwick, The Closer, TNT; Mariska Hargitay, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, NBC; Patricia Arquette, Medium, NBC; Minnie Driver, The Riches, FX; Edie Falco, The Sopranos, HBO.
Supporting actor, drama:
William Shatner, Boston Legal, ABC; T.R. Knight, Grey's Anatomy, ABC; Masi Oka, Heroes, NBC; Michael Emerson, Lost, ABC; Terry O'Quinn, Lost, ABC; Michael Imperioli, The Sopranos, HBO.
Supporting actress, drama:
Rachel Griffiths, Brothers & Sisters, ABC; Katherine Heigl, Grey's Anatomy, ABC; Chandra Wilson, Grey's Anatomy, ABC; Sandra Oh, Grey's Anatomy, ABC; Aida Turturro, The Sopranos, HBO; Lorraine Bracco, The Sopranos, HBO.
Tony Shalhoub, Monk, USA; Steve Carell, The Office, NBC; Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock, NBC; Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men, CBS.
Felicity Huffman, Desperate Housewives, ABC; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, The New Adventures of Old Christine, CBS; Tiny Fey, 30 Rock, NBC; America Ferrera, Ugly Betty, ABC; Mary-Louise Parker, Weeds, Showtime.
Supporting actor, comedy:
Kevin Dillon, Entourage, HBO; Jeremy Piven, Entourage, HBO; Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother, CBS; Rainn Wilson, The Office, CBS; Jon Cryer, Two and a Half Men, CBS.
Supporting actress, comedy:
Jaime Pressly, My Name Is Earl, NBC; Jenna Fischer, The Office, NBC; Holland Taylor, Two and a Half Men, CBS; Conchata Ferrell, Two and a Half Men, CBS; Vanessa Williams, Ugly Betty, ABC; Elizabeth Perkins, Weeds, Showtime.