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Cable networks with their edgy dramas and profane comedies are set to shine yet again at the Emmys, but the big four could be poised for a comeback thanks to an F-bomb dropped seven years ago by Bono.
Once you get past all the technical three-camera, costume-for-a-dwarf-in-a-mini-series awards, there are only 10 categories anybody really cares about: the acting and best series awards for comedies and drama. Looking at the 60 nominees in those categories, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox garnered only 34. Cable networks cleaned up yet again.
This trend has been developing long enough that it's no longer a trend, it's a fact. Cable networks make better TV shows than the guys that invented the medium. There are three major reasons: 1) the major networks are trying to program 10 to 15 hours a week, 2) the viewership needed to be considered a hit on cable is much lower and 3) and this the big one, the edge factor -- you can swear and get naked on the the cable networks.
Before this summer's debut of "Rubicon," AMC only had two original series on the air, "Mad Men," which has won nine Emmys out of 32 nominations with 17 more this year, and "Breaking Bad" with four, nine and seven.
"Friday Night Lights" is a perfect example of the lower threshold of success necessary, as it barely stayed afloat at NBC before finding a home on DirecTV. This year leads Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler received two of the show's four nominations.
And looking at the Best Drama nominees, we find evidence of the edge factor in "True Blood," a vampire soap opera dripping with blood; "Breaking Bad" features a meth-cooking cancer patient and his foul-mouthed junkie partner; "Dexter" star Michael C. Hall as a serial killer who moonlights as a medical examiner; and the exception (that proves the rule), "Mad Men," whose creator Matthew Weiner worked for years on "The Sopranos," and never even offered his baby to one of the networks, going from HBO to Showtime to AMC.
The days of the cable channels' dominance have been imperiled, however, by a Supreme Court decision handed down last month. You may recall that in 2003 U2 singer Bono was so pleased by his band's Golden Globe win that he said the F-word on live TV. Well the Parents Television Council freaked, the FCC cried foul and NBC barely managed to escape a fine. But on July 13, the Supreme Court ruled that the FCC's rules on dirty words were unconstitutionally vague.
With those rules tossed out the window, "we are in a state of regulatory free-fall in which most of the already few rules that applied to content on broadcast TV have been suspended," says LA Times TV critic Robert Lloyd.
At last year's Emmys, Julia Louis-Dreyfus joked that she was "honored to be presenting on the last official year of network broadcast television." Well the Supreme Court has cracked open a window of opportunity for the big four. The question now is will they take their chance?
Maybe we'll find out at next year's Emmys.