Retro ’60s drama “Mad Men” and legal thriller “Damages” are poised to take a shot at making Emmy Awards history Sunday — and wooing new fans — as basic cable’s first best-series nominees.
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It’s a fascinating time in the annual awards show’s 60-year history, with some twists that reflect how television is changing overall.
Besides winners and red-carpet fashion hits and misses, here’s what to watch for this year:
Basic cable’s overall strong showing.
The awards show airing on ABC (8 p.m. EDT) represents a valuable platform for AMC’s “Mad Men” and FX’s “Damages,” which on a good night each attract just a sliver of the Emmy audience that last year measured 13 million.
For “Mad Men,” the nominations turned up the buzz on a sophomore show that has critics swooning. The meticulously produced take on 1960s America through the prism of Madison Avenue was the most-nominated drama series with 16 bids, including one for star Jon Hamm.
The drama has seen a steady week-to-week ratings increase over last year, with a recent episode up 70 percent in viewership and touching 2 million, series creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner said. The Emmys could be the catalyst for more.
“Just seeing us there would help, obviously, but winning would be better,” Weiner said this week. Check out some of the other nominees »
“Damages,” FX’s legal thriller with Glenn Close, also drew a best-series nod and one for its movie-star lead.
A quintet of hosts from TV’s most popular reality shows, including Ryan Seacrest of “American Idol,” and Heidi Klum of “Project Runway” will serve as emcees at the downtown Nokia Theatre. Watch a preview of this year’s Emmys »
Another reality touch: Lauren Conrad of “The Hills” was set as a presenter. Conrad and last season’s “Project Runway” winner Christian Siriano are expected to create gowns for the so-called “trophy girls.”
A rating’s challenge of the show’s own.
Last year’s ceremony drew the second-smallest audience on record amid a general downturn in award-show viewership.
In a way, “Damagas” and “Mad Men” represents a mixed blessing for the ceremony because they’re relatively undiscovered by viewers, said Emmy executive producer Ken Ehrlich.
“You’re almost introducing a broader audience to some of those shows. It’s a challenge,” Ehrlich said. But it also meant the ceremony could be “fresher. … you’re playing with some new teams and that can be fun.”
Tina Fey’s “30 Rock,” the leading sitcom nominee, also was a candidate for a ratings bounce — although Fey could return the favor, courtesy of her red-hot “Saturday Night Live” impression of Sarah Palin.