It seems the Emmys have adopted the TV equivalent of the Academy Awards' smaller-film fixation that has lifted critical darlings to Oscar glory over such box-office hits as "The Dark Knight."
Still, there were bright spots for the big four: This year's leading nominee was NBC's "30 Rock," which received 22 bids to break the record for a comedy series it set last year when it reaped 17.
HBO's "Flight of the Conchords" was just one of the offbeat shows and performers that emerged Thursday as nominees for the 61st prime-time awards ceremony in September. Bad-girl comedian Sarah Silverman received an acting nod for her Comedy Central series "The Sarah Silverman Program," and edgy HBO series "Big Love," about polygamous families, and AMC's "Breaking Bad," about a meth-making schoolteacher, broke into the best drama series ranks.
The dividing line falls neatly between the adventurous shows fielded by niche cable networks and the largely mainstream, predictable offerings from broadcasters.
"It couldn't be on any broadcast network," said "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston, a best-actor nominee. "Ten, 15 years ago you'd say that was a downfall. Now it's one of the positive points of television. If you can be a show that's on cable instead of broadcast, more than likely, you have a much greater chance of producing quality television."
A shake-up in the nominations approach didn't benefit networks. This year, the field of nominees in major categories was expanded and the selection process for those categories switched from a combination of academy popular vote and blue-ribbon panels to popular vote alone.
Besides "30 Rock," NBC also enjoyed good showings by "Saturday Night Live," which got a record 13 bids in the variety program category, and "The Office," which pulled in nine nominations.
But the prestige drama series category was largely the turf of cable channels.
Among the seven nominated series, the only two network shows to make the cut were Fox's "House" and ABC's "Lost." The other contenders were either from basic or premium cable, including "Breaking Bad," HBO's "Big Love," FX's "Damages," Showtime's "Dexter" and last year's winner, AMC's "Mad Men.
CBS' "How I Met Your Mother" claimed a best comedy series spot, joining "30 Rock," "The Office" and Fox's "Family Guy" to raise the network flag. "Family Guy" boasted a rare showing in the category by an animated series. Besides "Flight of the Conchords," other cable contenders are HBO's "Entourage" and Showtime's "Weeds."
Jim Parsons of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" scored a nomination for lead actor in a comedy.
"No! ... This is some sort of trick fest," said Parsons, when his bid was revealed during a brief announcement ceremony at the TV academy. "I feel a little dreamlike right now," he said later about his first-time Emmy nomination.
More than honor is at stake for broadcasters, who air the Emmy ceremony on a rotating basis and would like to use it to promote their wares, not those of cable. There's also the expectation that nominees with bigger followings might boost the Emmy audience, which last year sunk to a low of 12.3 million viewers.
HBO dominated with the most number of nominations, 99. Among the networks, NBC led with 67, followed by ABC with 55, CBS with 49 and Fox with 42. Showtime earned 29 nods and PBS had 26.
The 61st Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony, with Neil Patrick Harris as host, is scheduled to air live Sept. 20 from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. Harris is also a nominee, for best supporting actor in a comedy series, "How I Met Your Mother."
In a sad tribute, "Farrah's Story," a documentary account of Farrah Fawcett's battle against cancer, was nominated in the nonfiction special category. The former "Charlie's Angels" star died June 25.
"It's very bittersweet. Farrah passed away three weeks ago today," said Alana Stewart, who helped film her longtime friend. "I know that she would be so, so happy. This was so important to her, this project. She's been nominated before, and I just know that this would be the most important one of all."
Affection was scarce for series that ended last season, including long-running medical drama "ER," "Boston Legal" and "Battlestar Galactica." There was a scattering of nominations among them, but nothing in the marquee categories of acting or best series. Another just-concluded series, "The Shield," was shut out.
Also snubbed for major awards were "Desperate Housewives" and "Jon & Kate Plus 8," left out of the reality series category. Top-rated TV show "American Idol" is a contender in the reality-competition category.
NBC found little glory in its late-night lineup, with Jay Leno's final season with "Tonight" and Conan O'Brien's farewell season of "Late Night" missing from the variety, music or comedy series category. O'Brien took over as "Tonight" host this year.
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