By Steve Pond
(Reuters) - Does the Television Academy need to follow the lead of its colleagues at the Oscars and expand its top category to a full 10 nominees?
That's a question that is being asked with increasing frequency these days, with the Emmy race in the Outstanding Drama Series category proving to be its most competitive in years, maybe even its toughest ever.
At least eight to 10 of the series currently in the running would be shoo-ins for a nomination in a normal year. But with only six slots up for grabs in the category, shows left on the sidelines could be as formidable as "Boardwalk Empire," "The Americans" or Netflix's potentially game-changing "House of Cards."
"I'm not saying anything that other people haven't been saying for a while, but it really is a golden age of television," Mark Johnson, executive producer of "Breaking Bad," told TheWrap. "It is remarkable how many great shows there are."
The buzz, he added, is constantly shifting. "One day I hear everybody talking about 'Game of Thrones,' the next day they're talking about 'The Americans,' the next day they're back to talking about 'Homeland.'
"I can't worry about where 'Breaking Bad' stands, or I'd end up driving myself crazy."
Gareth Neame, the executive producer of "Downton Abbey," agreed that the field was unusually strong in a recent conversation with TheWrap. "The bar is so high now that a lot of people are saying the number of nominees isn't enough," he said.
"But where do you have the cutoff? You're only going to have one winner - do you really want to have a lot of nominees?"
The problem for Emmy voters is that if you don't have a lot of nominees, you'll leave out either acclaimed veteran shows or fresh newcomers. The top contenders, in alphabetical order:
FX's Cold War drama may have the best shot of series to do what "Homeland" did last year - not only land a nomination, but win the drama-series Emmy in its first season. Its four nominations at both the Critics' Choice Television Awards and the TCA Awards are double the number scored by the other hot freshman series, Netflix's "House of Cards."
"Boardwalk Empire" TheWrap's Tim Molloy has called Season 3 of the HBO drama its best one, and named the show the best series of the 2012-2013 season. With 18 nominations and eight wins in its first season and 12 noms and four wins in its second (including drama-series nods both years), Terence Winter's period drama is a proven favorite with voters.
The only time in the last four years that Vince Gilligan's show didn't get a drama-series nomination was 2011, the year it wasn't eligible; before that year off, star Bryan Cranston won three consecutive Emmys as lead actor in a drama series.
This time around, voters will be considering the first half of the series' final season, which was split into eight episodes that aired in 2012 and eight more that will begin airing this August - right when Emmy voters will be casting their final ballots.
The Critics' Choice Television Awards, which correctly predicted the Emmy winners in 2011 and 2012, recently named it the year's best drama (in a tie with "Game of Thrones").
The most-nominated non-American series of all time (it qualifies because it's a co-production with WGBH in Boston), "Downton Abbey" made mincemeat of the Emmys' miniseries or movie categories after its first season, then shifted to the tougher drama-series categories in its second season and scored 14 nominations and three wins.
Its third season gained lots of attention by killing off a couple of main characters whose actors wouldn't renew their contracts.
"Game of Thrones"
Speaking of killing off main characters, HBO's "Game of Thrones" had what might have been the most talked-about hour of TV all season with its brutal "Red Wedding" episode. And Emmy voters already loved the show for its scale and scope: In its first two seasons it scored 25 nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series noms both years, and eight wins.
"The Good Wife"
Is there room for a broadcast network in the drama-series category? For years, "The Good Wife" has been fighting the good fight on behalf of the networks, giving CBS the one non-cable spot in the slate of nominees.
It still has enough strength with actors to be a formidable competitor in the category - but after being the sole broadcast-network nominee in its first two seasons, it couldn't land a series nomination last year, which produced the first all-cable lineup in the category's history.
"Homeland" Showtime's series scored an upset victory in the category last year, and Emmy voters are such creatures of habit that it's hard to believe they won't at least nominate the show that won the previous year. (The last time the reigning champ failed to get a nomination was 2007, with "24.") Between its second Golden Globe win and its Critics' Choice nomination, it does not appear to have suffered a sophomore slump.
"House of Cards"
The biggest wild card on the ballot is Beau Willimon's political drama, whose entire season of 13 episodes was made available in February by Netflix. It would be unconventional for Emmy voters to look so far outside traditional television for a nominee, but "House of Cards" may have been the year's most buzz-worthy show, and one that turned binge viewing into a national pastime.
"I think it'll get in because of sheer talkability, and because it's breaking new ground," said Gareth Neame.
Emmy voters have always loved Matthew Weiner's Madison Avenue drama, which has already won four drama-series Emmys and will break the record it shares with "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "The West Wing" if it wins another.
The past season - its second-to-last ever - may have been the show's weirdest, but it's impossible to envision voters not nominating it. Plus, to improve his chances this year, Weiner hired the publicist who landed "Argo" its Oscar Best Picture.
The six nominees will most likely come from those nine shows, but FX's "Justified" is always in the mix, and HBO's "The Newsroom" has a real shot as well. Then there are the buzziest new shows on broadcast TV, "Scandal" and "Nashville"; the final season of Showtime's four-time drama-series nominee "Dexter"; the genre gems "The Walking Dead" and "Bates Motel" ...
So who'll be snubbed?
Critics' Choice voters went with "Breaking Bad," "Game of Thrones," "The Americans," "Downton Abbey," "The Good Wife" and "Homeland" (right), leaving out "Boardwalk Empire," "House of Cards" (!) and "Mad Men" (!!).
Golden Globe voters opted for "Boardwalk," "Downton," "Homeland," "Breaking Bad" and "The Newsroom," but not "Game of Thrones," "Mad Men" or "The Good Wife." ("House of Cards" and "The Americans" hadn't yet debuted, and they were voting on the previous season of "Mad Men.")
Given the stiff competition, and the fact that current Emmy rules call for just six nominees (though a tie produced seven in 2009), it's hardly embarrassing to be left out. But that will be small consolation to whichever topnotch shows find themselves overlooked when nominations are announced on July 18.
"It's tough, because we are just surrounded by really great storytelling," said Mark Johnson, who has few illusions that his other show, the acclaimed Sundance series "Rectify," can find a spot in a year this competitive.
"As somebody said to me recently, 'The movie studios should be ashamed that they've given storytelling over to television.'"