This year’s Emmy race for Outstanding Drama Series will continue cable’s dominance in this most prestigious category. Cable claimed 10 of the 13 nomination spots over the past two years, and 13 of 19 since 2008. By contrast, cable earned a mere nine nods combined in the seven years between 2001 and 2007 when the networks still ruled. The shift from broadcast is so extreme in 2011 that CBS’ The Good Wife is considered the only network series with a solid shot to earn its second nomination in as many years. (Though not in that league, NBC/DirecTV’s Friday Night Lights, NBC’s Parenthood, and CBS’ Blue Bloods deserve consideration while ABC has entered a rebuilding phase.) The sad reality is that the broadcast networks, which just signed a new eight-year deal with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to carry the Emmys, are facing a possible first-ever shutout from the top drama series category. That’s because of the continuing strength and ambition of programming on cable — in particular, HBO in a return to form, and AMC still on a roll.

HBO’s Prohibition-era hourlong Boardwalk Empire drew the most critical attention this Emmy season because of its pedigreed producer team, headed by the legendary Martin Scorsese and creator/showrunner Terence Winter, a Sopranos alum. How interesting that the pay channel’s expensive serial will compete against another period drama from that other Sopranos alum Matt Weiner. AMC’s first acclaimed original series, Mad Men, has won this category three years running and is bidding this year to be the first series to win four in a row since NBC’s The West Wing (2000- 2003). Though the frontrunner, Mad Men could be hurt by a long hiatus.

AMC has seized the mantle from HBO as TV’s preeminent quality-drama purveyor with a pair of newcomers that could crack the series field this year: the zombie-themed hour The Walking Dead, and the dark murder mystery The Killing. Even though two-time category nominee Breaking Bad is not eligible for 2011, AMC could still land three nods, becoming the first network in 10 years to do so in this category, after NBC scored the hat trick in 2001 with The West Wing, ER, and Law & Order. No cable network has ever managed the feat to date.

And then there’s Showtime, whose Dexter is in the running for its fourth consecutive Outstanding Drama nomination, along with first-season Shameless. FX is pushing its increasingly buzzed-about Western, Justified and, to a lesser extent, Sons Of Anarchy. TNT wants attention for The Closer, Men Of A Certain Age, and Southland. USA is pressing Covert Affairs and White Collar. Here’s our assessment of the chances for this year’s drama series in alphabetical order:

BIG LOVE
HBO’s serial about a polygamist Mormon family faltered in its fourth season but regained its footing when it returned this year, just in time to go
out on top. However, it’s only been nominated for Outstanding Drama Series once (in 2009 — and lost). The series is a long shot against HBO’s own Boardwalk Empire.

BLUE BLOODS
Though this CBS hourlong is one of the fall season’s few broadcast breakouts, there’s been far more drama behind the scenes. Series creators Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green exited at the end of last season, and this came nine months after then-showrunner Ken Sanzel left, too. If the show can’t fi gure out if it wants to be character-driven or more procedural, then how will Emmy voters?

BOARDWALK EMPIRE
Coming off victories for the SAG, WGA, and DGA awards, this Prohibition-era drama all but has its Emmy nomination in the bag, and may have the inside track to win as well — because HBO has more money to campaign for Emmy than its primary cable rival, upstart AMC, does. As showrunner Terence Winter notes humbly: “Awards attention is very gratifying. But the work itself is the real reward.”

COVERT AFFAIRS
No USA Network series has ever broken through in the Outstanding Drama lineup, though there’s general agreement that the overall quality of its hourlongs has improved. This year, USA is proud enough of Covert Affairs and White Collar to give them a big-screen promotional campaign in movie houses this spring. Covert’s best shot for Emmy attention resides with rising star Piper Perabo.

DEXTER
The Showtime thriller’s most recent fifth season was controversial, to say the least. The TV community both loved and hated the storyline featuring Julia Stiles as a victim-turned-romantic partner for Dexter. It still didn’t generate anywhere near the buzz of Season Four and John Lithgow’s memorable Trinity killer. But you can’t write off the series’ chances — it has been nominated three times.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
After series leads Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton snuck into the Emmy derby last year via DirecTV, of all places, there is at least hope that the big-hearted, high school football drama could score a nomination for its fifth and final season. Showrunner Jason Katims says a posthumous award “would remind me a lot of a FNL episode, in the 11th hour, in the final seconds of the game.”

FRINGE
The Fox hit should be a contender, given that its third season was its best reviewed yet. But the Emmys rarely recognize sci-fi series (The X-Files a notable exception), and there’s probably jealousy over J.J. Abrams’ continuing success in television as well as motion pictures. The odds are probably against it.

GAME OF THRONES
The reviews for HBO’s medieval fantasy are good, and its ratings have been growing steadily. But this dazzling and densely-plotted show is still a first-season wild card, even if it will be fresh in voters’ minds since it’s still on.

THE GOOD WIFE
Nominated last year for its excellent freshman season, and with an Emmy win for supporting actress Archie Panjabi already under its belt, this sophomore CBS drama is a favorite for a second nod in 2011. The praise “was especially flattering because there hasn’t been a lot of attention to network shows in the last few years,” says Michelle King, co-creator/co-showrunner with husband Robert.

GREY’S ANATOMY
The days of this medical drama landing noms as it did in 2006 and 2007 are long past. None of its performers were nominated last year, either. Yet, the ABC series gets significant props for its musical episode this year, possibly giving it renewed Emmy heat. And it remains a player in the 18-to-49 demo, landing eighth overall among all broadcast primetime series for the 2010-2011 season.

HOUSE
After being nominated for Outstanding Drama Series four years in a row without a win, this veteran was passed over last year. Is the show’s best shot behind it?

JUSTIFIED
Although this Western, created by Graham Yost and based on a story by Elmore Leonard, was denied an Outstanding Drama Series nomination last year, it did receive a Peabody Award. With its second season just as strong as its first — if not stronger — it remains arguably FX’s best shot at a nod. Though packed with gallows humor, it’s not a “dramedy,” maintains Yost. “It’s just trying to be entertainment. We’ll see if that gets attention. I hope it does.”

THE KILLING
Cold Case veteran Veena Sud’s dark, new murder mystery starring Mireille Enos as a brooding detective furthers AMC’s brand as a source of top-tier programming despite fan complaints about this season’s finale. The show — based on the Danish TV series Forbrydelsen — created the most memorably grim atmosphere since Twin Peaks. “The way I like to describe The Killing is a character drama wrapped up in the conceit of a cop show,” Sud says.

MAD MEN
Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama Series for the last three years in a row, AMC’s pitch-perfect, period piece set in the cigarette-and-martini 1960s is a shoo-in to again find itself with a nod. And devoted fans of star Jon Hamm (aren’t we all?) believe this finally may be his year with Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston out of the picture this time. Question is, will creator Matthew Weiner’s very public and very rich contract negotiations impact the outcome of this drama category?

MEN OF A CERTAIN AGE
The TNT dramedy suffered unimpressive ratings when it opened its third season, but it arrived on Emmy’s radar when Andre Braugher earned a supporting actor nod in 2010. But voters may perceive this as just another comedy from Ray Romano, who acknowledges, “It’s taken a little bit for that to get weeded out.”

PARENTHOOD
The NBC series developed by Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims maintained its quality control in Season Two. But it was snubbed last year and generates little Emmy hype. On the other hand, audiences and critics have warmed to the show and its large ensemble cast, which includes TV standouts Lauren Graham and Peter Krause. “Weirdly, it’s tough now for a network show to break through, but I believe we’ll get there,” Katims says.

SHAMELESS
Showtime’s newbie, dysfunctional-family drama starring William H. Macy is considered a breakout hit and a dramatic departure from Executive Producer John Wells, who has already won six Emmys. Based on the British series of the same name, it took eight years to develop this realistic depiction depiction of the American underclass. Emmy voters may consider its debut particularly timely. “A lot of the jobs that were there for working people just aren’t there anymore,” Wells says.

SPARTACUS: GODS OF THE ARENA
As great as this Starz gladiator drama was, it might have been shrewder to submit it in the Outstanding Miniseries or Movie category, rather
than Drama Series. There, it would have been a shoo-in; here, a wildcard.

SONS OF ANARCHY
This popular FX series has never been nominated for an Emmy. Perhaps the cable network needs a new strategy to sell its biker-clan concept to voters, without just Katey Sagal representing it. Paris Barclay, who recently joined as executive producer and principal director, says this season’s scripts are “Deadwood–esque — and yet, it hasn’t gotten the love.”

SOUTHLAND
Dumped by NBC, the Warner Bros. police drama not only survived but thrived after being picked up by TNT. Its scripts became edgier, for one
thing. However, with even the basic cable network’s flagship drama The Closer yet to secure an Outstanding Drama Series nod, it’s unlikely
Southland will find enough attention.

TRUE BLOOD
HBO’s supernatural serial was a surprising 2010 nominee. But with such a crowded category this time around, it may be hard for Emmy voters to take HBO’s vampires and werewolves seriously when Boardwalk Empire is competing as well. And the fourth season premiere opens after ballots are returned.

THE WALKING DEAD
This thriller’s much-talked-about first season should assure it a nomination. But AMC is in competition with itself for Mad Men and The Killing as
well. Could it really nab three slots — especially when the third is zombie-driven? Very possible, given that it already earned WGA and DGA nods
this year. “It’s awesome to be part of the awards chatter,” showrunner Frank Darabont admits, “but it’s also true that, too often, the horror genre gets short shrift.”

WHITE COLLAR
USA is pushing this third-year personality procedural, which remains the #1 scripted drama on cable with both adults 18-49 and 25-54, year to date. But the TV Academy may be right to think the USA hourlong that stars Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay in FBI/con man capers belongs in a Drama-Lite category. USA’s under-appreciated Burn Notice deserves a closer look by Emmy than this show.

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