LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Three cable TV shows from three networks, "Mad Men," "Damages" and "Dexter," claimed Emmy nominations for best drama on Thursday, marking a turning point in the 60-year-old competition for U.S. television's highest honors.
"Mad Men," the AMC network's new 1960s period piece set in the world of advertising, "Damages," the freshman legal hour on FX starring Glenn Close, and "Dexter," the serial killer drama from Showtime, are the first shows originating on a cable network other than HBO to be nominated for best drama series.
They will be competing against three shows from broadcast television in a rare six-way race -- Fox medical drama "House," ABC's castaway thriller "Lost," which won the best-drama Emmy in 2005, and ABC courtroom drama "Boston Legal.
NBC's network TV spoof "30 Rock" was the most recognized series overall with 17 nominations, including best comedy, a category it won last year, and best-acting bids for its two stars, Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin.
"Mad Men" was close behind with 16 total nominations, two of them -- for best lead actor and supporting actor -- going to Jon Hamm and John Slattery, respectively.
"30 Rock" will compete in the comedy series category against fellow NBC workplace sitcom and 2006 comedy champ "The Office," the bawdy CBS hit "Two and a Half Men" and a pair of HBO series, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and "Entourage."
But HBO, home of such past Emmy darlings as "The Sopranos" and "Deadwood," was shut out of the best drama derby for the first time since 1998.
Still, the heavy presence of contenders from a variety of cable channels reflected the recent flourishing of cable as an incubator for high-quality dramas. Emmy watchers said that phenomenon was made more pronounced by the shortened season on broadcast TV this year due to the Hollywood writers strike.
In fact, "Dexter" got additional broadcast exposure this year when CBS picked it up from sister cable network Showtime and aired it as a replacement program during the strike.
"This represents the changing of the guard in a lot of ways," said Ken Ehrlich, executive producer of the upcoming Emmy telecast.
Charlie Collier, general manager of AMC, said cable TV's focus on building subscriptions through branding, rather than having to live and die by the ratings, as broadcast networks do, is a major factor at work.
"It's part of a continuing trend where the dollars tend to hit the screen more on cable then they do anywhere else," he told Reuters. "We've all started to invest in higher-end talent both in front of and behind the camera."
Cable also dominated the drama-acting contests as never before. Four of the six nominees for best actor were from AMC, Showtime and HBO -- Hamm, Michael C. Hall of "Dexter," Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad" and Gabriel Byrne on "In Treatment," respectively. "House" star Hugh Laurie and three-time winner James Spader from ABC's "Boston Legal" round out the race.
Three of five contenders for best-drama actress hailed from cable, too: "Damages" star Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick on TNT's "The Closer" and Holly Hunter on "Saving Grace."
They face winners from the last two years, Sally Field from ABC's "Brothers & Sisters," and Mariska Hargitay from NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit."
The comedy performance races remained the dominion of broadcast networks, with only one actor and one actress from cable making the cut -- past winner Tony Shalhoub from USA's "Monk" and Mary-Louise Parker from "Weeds" on Showtime.
Other lead actress comedy nominees are "Seinfeld" veteran and 2006 winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus for CBS's "The New Adventures of Old Christine," America Ferrera from ABC's "Ugly Betty" and Christina Applegate from ABC's new "Samantha Who?"
The comedy actor roster included Steve Carell of "The Office," Charlie Sheen from "Two and a Half Men" and Lee Pace of ABC's new supernatural fantasy "Pushing Daisies."
While "30 Rock" was the most nominated series, HBO's mini-series "John Adams," about the second U.S. president, claimed the most nominations of any single program -- 23.
The 60th annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be broadcast live on September 21 from the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles on ABC.
Additional reporting by Bob Tourtellotte; editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Philip Barbara