Cable: They've Earned It

Cable TV is due some respect. The latest indication of how much the industry deserves from critics and advertisers came last Thursday, courtesy of the television academy.

In the Emmy nominations, cable networks—many of them basic—got nods in every telecast category. Basic cable increased its share across all categories 20%, from 27 to 35 nominations, and its overall share of the split with broadcast to 48%. In longform, cable dominated with 25 of the 28 possible nominations.

Bravo, for example, picked up two of the five in the reality competition category; FX became the first basic-cable network to earn nods in both best-actor and -actress categories (Rescue Me's Denis Leary and The Riches' Minnie Driver, respectively); AMC, which had no nominations last year, picked up the most of any basic-cable network with 18, including 16 for its Broken Trail movie event, which was the highest such total since Roots ran the table 30 years ago.

“It's really rewarding to put in this kind of time and this sort of effort and see the results play out and have critics and viewers get what we're doing and completely appreciate it,” says AMC programming chief Rob Sorcher.

HBO posted the most nominations of any network, broadcast or cable, with 86. Standing out among the total was the 17 nods picked up by Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the most given to any television movie. In fact, cable owns the entire television-movie category; in addition to Wounded Knee, there's HBO's Longford, Discovery Channel's Inside the Twin Towers, TNT's The Ron Clark Story and Lifetime's Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy.

Several cable networks posted “bests,” including Comedy Central's 12, Discovery Channel's 16, and Bravo's nine.

Despite cable's continually gaining respect in the creative community—and pulling about 60% of the viewing audience this summer to broadcast's 30%—cable networks are still considered second-rate by advertisers, which pay double to reach the same-size broadcast audience.

“It's a network-centric world, and it takes a long time to break those habits,” says Lifetime Networks' research and ratings guru Tim Brooks, author of The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. “You don't sell twice as much by reaching a viewer on a broadcast show. It's relationships from many years, and it's a holdover which over time will erode.”

Cable companies like Turner have touted the idea of “one TV world” for years, arguing that cable should get the same level of ad-rate respect. That seems a ways off. In the meantime, it's impossible to ignore ratings gains and increasingly high-quality fare.

In terms of pure quality, this summer's cable highlights—AMC's Mad Men, TNT's The Closer, Lifetime's Army Wives, USA's Starter Wife and FX's upcoming Damages, to name a few—dwarf broadcast's reality alternatives.

The creative community has caught on; the increased prospect of clearing shelf space for an Emmy will bring more top-level talent to cable.

“Elsewhere in television, they're not being asked to make this stuff; we're insisting on it,” says Sorcher. “It's confirmation of this high-quality track we're on.”

Perhaps the ever rising Emmy bounty will help cable get the boost it deserves from the advertising community, much as an Oscar can for the earning prospects for an independent film.

“The cable industry as a whole has been able to stand toe to toe with broadcast for a number of years now, so the increasing number of nominations for cable is icing on the cake for us,” says Comedy Central Executive VP/General Manager Michele Ganeless. Her network's total of 12 Emmy nods was 50% more than last year's eight.

For some, like Bravo President Lauren Zalaznick, that icing only seems to justify what they already know to be true.

“You don't always look at the biggest painting in a museum. You look at the best one,” she says. “I'm happy to carry a big banner for cable. I am well known at NBCU for never feeling inferior. This is what I chose to do, to work in cable and make great programming.”

The television academy has recognized that. Everyone else should, too.

Robins Report will return next week.