In Depth

Actresses Bite Into Meaty Parts

Oscar-Caliber Talent Fills Drama Actress Category Because Cable Offers Great Roles

Of this year’s five nominations for lead actress in a drama series, three are for shows on cable TV: Glenn Close shines as a cutthroat lawyer in “Damages” on FX Network, Kyra Sedgwick does a star turn as Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson in TNT’s “The Closer” and Holly Hunter has won acclaim as Grace Hanadarko on TNT’s “Saving Grace.”

Cable TV is in the limelight, a trend that has been growing for the past few years, but with a new twist. “This is the first time we’re seeing basic cable as opposed to premium cable,” said Jill Rosengard Hill, senior VP at Frank N. Magid Associates. “It took years for basic cable to realize they play in the same arena in terms of original programming. Now you’re seeing smart, interesting, compelling, edgy programs on basic cable. If you look at the total numbers of nominations, HBO has far and away the most with 85 nominations; they’re always the leader. But AMC has 20, Sci Fi 15 and FX 11. These are numbers unprecedented for basic cable.”

Though cable TV shows dominate, the broadcast nominees also are strong. Sally Field in ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters,” who won last year, and Mariska Hargitay in NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” who won the year before, are both strong contenders in solid roles.

But as more cable networks now leverage much laxer restrictions to follow in HBO’s path, they’re creating the kind of juicy roles that are magnets to top actresses. “The opportunity is in cable and that’s why they’re able to attract Academy Award-level actresses,” said Katz TV Group VP Bill Carroll. “The storylines can be more intense and deal with grittier subjects.”

Cable attracts these high-caliber actresses for other reasons. “Because cable series are only 13 episodes instead of 22, a lot of big-name stars are comfortable doing a more limited run on cable because it gives them more time to work on other projects,” said Horizon Media Senior VP Brad Adgate. “Holly Hunter, Glenn Close, Kyra Sedgwick can do other things and then come back to [the series] every year. That’s one advantage cable has over broadcast: less demand on their time.”

Whether the network is broadcast or cable, the stellar quality of the five nominees reflects another reality. “In all honesty, any of the actresses on that list would have a more difficult time finding an equivalent role in a major motion picture,” said Mr. Carroll. “There, it’s either superheroes or comedic roles, not the really intense, strong female leads.”

TV pundits are not in lockstep on which nominee has the best chance to land the Emmy Award. Ms. Rosengard Hill thinks the winner will be one of the actresses on a cable show. “‘Law & Order’ was the original edgy program, but it doesn’t have the same edge,” she said. “‘Brothers and Sisters’ is compelling and heartwarming, but it doesn’t stretch and the character doesn’t have the depth and complexity that the cable characters have.” Ms. Rosengard Hill thinks the contest is between Ms. Hunter and Ms. Sedgwick.

Mr. Carroll thinks it will “come down to the three movie actresses who have gone into TV. If I were picking my favorite, it would be Kyra Sedgwick,” he said. “The consistency of that character sustained over several years has been pretty amazing.” But he thinks the overall favorite is Ms. Close, “the most distinctive for playing to and against type. That character was almost out of a movie.”

Ms. Close is also Mr. Adgate’s pick. “It’s a cutting-edge series and she’s the star of it,” he said. “It’s also up for best drama series and there’s a reason why it’s very popular.”

Looking at all five nominees and the roles they play, Mr. Adgate added, “TV is finally catching up with the real world and women’s changing roles in the workplace.

“It’s like ‘Cagney and Lacey’ 25 years later, where we have the tough-as-nails women working in jobs that have traditionally been held by men,” he added. “They all played what would have been historically nontraditional female roles, which is one of the reasons they’re getting these top-flight actresses to accept a recurring role on a cable series.”