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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The chain-smoking, booze-swilling, skirt-chasing advertising executives from "Mad Men" are expected to make Emmy history when U.S. television's highest honors are handed out on Sunday.
The AMC network's critically acclaimed period piece, set in the social cross-currents of New York's Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, is the overwhelming favorite to win this year's Emmy prize as best drama series.
If it prevails, "Mad Men" would become the first show from a cable network other than HBO to claim the prestigious best-drama title, marking a new turning point in the 60-year-old Emmy competition and prime-time television itself.
But HBO remains a major Emmy force with its biographical portrait "John Adams" poised to tie or surpass a record 11 wins for a miniseries, set in 2004 by HBO's adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Angels in America."
Broadcast TV, meanwhile, still dominates sitcom territory, thanks to NBC's show-within-a-show "30 Rock," ranked as a virtual shoo-in to be named best comedy series for a second straight year, according to a poll of Emmy pundits and TV critics posted at the awards Web site TheEnvelope.com.
Although cable shows are attracting more attention this year, chief pollster Tom O'Neil said "30 Rock" has proven "irresistible" to Emmy voters precisely because "it does a brilliant job of savaging the broadcast TV industry."
Four other comedy nominees are considered relative longshots -- the CBS hit "Two and a Half Men," NBC's "The Office," which won in 2006, and two HBO series -- "Curb Your Enthusiasm and "Entourage."
On the drama side, two non-HBO cable shows broke ground with "Mad Men" in landing nominations for top series -- the freshman legal hour "Damages" on FX and the serial killer saga "Dexter" from Showtime. Three broadcast series round out a rare six-way drama contest -- ABC's "Boston Legal," the Fox medical hit "House" and the 2005 winner, ABC castaway thriller "Lost."
"Mad Men," however, was the clear front-runner in O'Neil's Emmy poll. The show clinched a Golden Globe for best TV drama in January and earned four lesser-category Emmys last Saturday at the so-called Creative Arts awards.
"Mad Men" is in the running for six more awards heading into Sunday's show, which will air live on ABC.
Jon Hamm, who stars as Don Draper, the dashing ad executive with a dark past, is a serious contender for best actor in a drama, along with three-time past nominee Hugh Laurie of "House." But "Boston Legal" star James Spader, a three-time winner, is the odds-on favorite this year.
"John Adams" collected eight Emmys last weekend and is expected to win at least three more on Sunday -- including the prize for best miniseries and an acting honor for Paul Giamatti's title performance as the second U.S. president.
Elsewhere on cable, Glenn Close, a five-time Oscar nominee, is seen as a near lock to win best actress in a drama for her lead role in "Damages," as is her co-star, "Cheers" veteran Ted Danson, in the contest for best supporting dramatic actor.
The two stars of "30 Rock," Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, are likewise favored to claim their first Emmy wins as comedy performers for their respective roles as a beleaguered writer of a TV variety show and her venal, egotistical boss.
Fey faces a tough challenge from Christina Applegate, who stars on ABC's "Samantha Who?" as a young woman with amnesia.
The awards will be emceed by all five nominees for the new Emmy category of best reality show host -- Tom Bergeron from "Dancing with the Stars," Heidi Klum from "Project Runway," Howie Mandel of "Deal or No Deal," Jeff Probst of "Survivor" and Ryan Seacrest of "American Idol."
Mandel said the hosting gimmick creates an awkward dynamic for the five emcees, four of whom will end up having to carry on through the telecast even after losing.
"It's a huge reality show," he told Reuters. "We are the ultimate contestants. Karma has come full circle."
Editing By Bob Tourtellotte and Cynthia Osterman