LOS ANGELES — Basic cable has long been the domain of low-rent fare such as "The Real World" and "Silk Stalkings," or kids' stuff like "SpongeBob SquarePants." For the award-winning shows, you had to pay a premium.
But fork over the roughly $40 average fee for monthly basic cable these days and you're going to get among the best that television has to offer _ at least according to no less an authority than the TV academy's Emmy voters.
While broadcast networks and premium channel HBO lost prestigious ground in the nominations announced Thursday, basic-cable series and stars swept in, proving that you don't need legacy call letters _ or viewers with money to burn _ to expand TV's capacity for inventive and daring drama.
AMC's "Mad Men" and FX's "Damages" became the first basic-cable programs to get best-series bids Thursday, and stars from cable's less glamorous channels also made a splash in major acting categories.
In the lead drama actor category, four of the six nominees were stars of cable shows, including Jon Hamm of "Mad Men." The sleek drama about 1960s America set in New York's advertising world was also the leading drama series contender with 16 nominations.
Three best-actress nods went to cable series stars, including Glenn Close of "Damages."
"I think it's changed the landscape of television," Close said of basic cable's growing creative strength.
HBO failed to field a best-drama series contender for the first time since 1998, after its now-departed "The Sopranos" claimed the honor last year. The premium cable channel still scored a leading 85 bids overall, followed by ABC with 76.
Boosting HBO's total was the historical drama "John Adams," the overall front-runner with a record 23 bids. That included a lead-actor nomination for Paul Giamatti's turn as one of America's founding fathers.
"30 Rock," last's year's best comedy series winner, was the top nominee among sitcoms with 17 bids. Other comedy series nominees were "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Entourage," "The Office" and "Two And A Half Men."
"The Wire," the just-ended, critically acclaimed HBO drama about police and drug dealers in Baltimore, lost its last shot at a best-drama nod after years of Emmy snubs. It received one nomination Thursday, for writing.
But other cable series made a serious dent in several top categories, gaining further ground on the networks. Audience favorites "Grey's Anatomy" and "Desperate Housewives" were both left out of the best-series categories, while the "Desperate" cast was shut out.
"Grey's" stars Sandra Oh and Chandra Wilson received bids in the best supporting drama actress category that last year was won by castmate Katherine Heigl _ who took herself out of the running this time, blaming her decision on lackluster scripts.
"Lost," rebounding with a well-received season, joined "Mad Men" and "Damages" in the best-drama series category with six nominees, including "Boston Legal, "Dexter" and "House." Only one acting nomination went to "Lost," a best-supporting actor nod for Michael Emerson's role as the manipulative Ben.
Joining Hamm with lead drama acting nods were last year's winner James Spader, "Boston Legal," Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad," Michael C. Hall, "Dexter," Hugh Laurie, "House" and Gabriel Byrne, "In Treatment."
"I'm surprised," Hamm said. "For someone like me to be included is amazing. Look at this list: These are people I've been watching, and been a fan of, for years and years. It's a genuinely wonderful feeling."
Close's competition for lead drama actress honors includes 2007 winner Sally Field for "Brothers & Sisters," Kyra Sedgwick, "The Closer," Mariska Hargitay, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and Holly Hunter, "Saving Grace."
"Damages," in which Close plays a tough-as-nails litigator, won critical acclaim last year but not great ratings. Close is hoping the Emmy attention will boost the show's audience for season two.
"We need all the help we can get," said Close, who was being driven to a shooting location on Long Island when her sister, Nancy, called her cell phone with the nomination news.
As for her nomination, she was more sanguine.
"I don't believe in comparison among artists," she said, "but, given the amazing number of talented people in this profession, to be included with a distinguished group of people is a huge honor."
Actresses nominated for best comedy series were Tina Fey of "30 Rock," the series she created; last year's honoree America Ferrera of "Ugly Betty," Christina Applegate, "Samantha Who?" and Mary-Louise Parker, "Weeds."
Nods for comedy series lead actors went to Tony Shalhoub for "Monk," Steve Carrell, "The Office," Lee Pace, "Pushing Daisies," Alec Baldwin, "30 Rock" and Charlie Sheen, "Two And A Half Men."
HBO's "Recount," a dramatization of the contested 2000 presidential election and one of the last films produced by Sydney Pollack before his death in May, was nominated in the TV movie category. Star Kevin Spacey received a nod for his performance.
"My thoughts went to him (Pollack) almost immediately," Spacey said by phone from London. "For all of us, he was just a guiding force. Those of who knew him and cherished him and had the great fortune to know him, for me, it's like, yeah, this one's for Sydney."
Ryan Seacrest, host of top-rated series "American Idol" made the cut in the new category of best host for a reality or reality-competition show. Other nominees were Howie Mandel of "Deal or No Deal," Heidi Klum of "Project Runway," Jeff Probst of "Survivor" and Tom Bergeron of "Dancing with the Stars."
"I'm thrilled that they've added this category, and thrilled to be part of this virgin group, if you will," Bergeron said.
The "Dancing" host said he debated whether to watch the announcement: "You know, there's that sort of weird sort of superstitious-think, like, 'Well, if I don't watch, maybe I'll get nominated, but if I do watch, I won't.' Like that's gonna change anything."
Nominees in the top categories for the 60th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards were announced at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences by Kristin Chenoweth, Neil Patrick Harris and TV academy Chairman John Shaffner.
Shaffner surprised Harris and Chenoweth at the end of the telecast by announcing supporting-actor nominations for each. Chenoweth, of "Pushing Daisies," stood open-jawed, while Harris, the regular scene-stealer of "How I Met Your Mother," pumped his fist and exclaimed, "Nice!"
Besides ABC's 76 nods, the broadcast networks tallies were CBS, 51 nominations; NBC, 50 and Fox, 28. PBS had 33 bids, while AMC garnered 20 bids.
The Emmy Awards ceremony will be held Sept. 21 and broadcast on ABC. Other Emmy honors, including those for technical achievement and guest actors and actresses in series, will be given at the creative arts ceremony on Sept. 13.
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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Frazier Moore, Erin Carlson and Jake Coyle in New York; and Solvej Schou and Sandy Cohen in Los Angeles.