The announcement of the finalists for the 2008 Emmy drama nominations shows how weak major television networks have become and the feeble program strategies they are now employing. AMC’s “Mad Men” and FX’s “Damages” became the first series ever produced by basic tier cable channels to become finalists for best series and they were joined in the 6 nominee list by Showtime for “Dexter”.

The results were even worse for networks in the major acting categories: Only 1 of the five Emmy nominees for lead actor and 2 of the five for lead actress went to network programs.

Overall, 24 cable network programs received nominations and 7 cable channels received 10 or more nominations. HBO received 85 nominations—beating out all the broadcast networks, Showtime received 20 nominations, and AMC received 20 nominations.

Drama is a bellwether of the health of television programming and networks continue to fair poorly. It is a particularly important genre, socially and culturally, because it allows explorations of beliefs, attitudes, norms, aspirations, and fears better than other program types. However, success is unpredictable and good drama is expensive to produce. Historically it was the province of the well funded dominant networks, but that has now changed.

The decline of quality in network television programming is directly related to the increasing number of channels available in households. As the number of channels increases, the average number of viewers declines, producing declining advertising support, and thus reducing resources available for program investments. The responses of networks have been predictable. They offer more game shows and reality programs that are less expensive to produce, avoid productions that are edgy and innovative, and rerun programs as much as possible.

Network prime time filled with shows such as “I survived a Japanese Game Show”, “Wife Swap”, “Nashville Star,” and The Bachelorette” and the networks wonder why they have trouble capturing audiences and gaining financial resources. When they do provide drama it is all too often formulaic and a spin off from an already successful series. There are strong tendencies for network drama to have a criminal or legal practice oriented or take a prime time soap opera approach, such as “CSI”, “Law & Order”, “Desperate Housewives”, and “Grey’s Anatomy”.

The program challenge has been growing worse year after year since the development of cable television channels in the 1970s. I don’t want to be interpreted as saying the networks have produced no fine drama, but the amount has declined precipitously.

This raises the question of why cable channels are able to follow an opposite path, increasing their production of drama and gaining more acclaim for their work. The simple answer is money. Having additional sources of income other than advertising frees programs from the necessity of seeking audiences linked to interests of advertisers and from the content influence of advertisers. It allows producers, writers, and directors to employ greater creativity, to address controversial subjects, and to take the time to ensure quality in the production.

Subscriber-supported HBO has the longest and most distinguished record in producing original drama with highly rated and acclaimed series such as “The Sopranos”, “Angels in America”, “Six Feet Under”, “Deadwood”, “Band of Brothers”, and “Sex and the City”. HBO is premium channel financed by subscriptions from about one third of American households, a clear example that many viewers want and are willing to pay for innovative, quality programming.

In recent years there has also been significant growth of drama from cable channels receiving both subscriber and advertising revenue, thus giving us programming such as USA network’s “Monk” and TNT’s “The Closer”. Original television drama is now being produced by other channels, such as AMC, Lifetime, and Showtime, as well.

One of the side effects of the increased production of drama by cable channels is that they are now playing significant export roles and their programming is regularly appearing in prime time on national channels, especially public service channels, in Europe and elsewhere.

Network executives need to seriously reconsider their programming strategies, particularly where drama is concerned, or they risk become secondary channels in the years to come. Unless they find ways to develop and support quality drama, it will increasingly become the trophy programming of cable channels in the years to come.