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Emmys comedy race takes edgy turn as cable outnumbers networks

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When ABC's "Modern Family" vies for its fifth consecutive best comedy Emmy award on Monday, not only will it battle the beloved geeks of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" but also a bunch of irreverent, foul-mouthed characters from cable and Netflix.

For the first time in Emmy history, networks are outnumbered by cable and online streaming outlets in the coveted best comedy series category, a sign of a growing appetite for comedy free from the confines of network TV.

"Modern Family" made waves when its contemporary family dynamic and gay couple appeared on Walt Disney Co's ABC in 2010. But today, along with CBS Corp's "The Big Bang Theory," it would be considered a safe choice for Emmy voters.

The network stalwarts are joined by two previous cable nominees: the dark and sometimes melancholy comedy "Louie" on Twenty-First Century Fox's basic cable FX, and HBO's "Veep," a political satire rich with curse words from U.S. Vice President Selina Meyer.

And then there are the newcomers, like HBO's technology satire, "Silicon Valley," where startup culture gets a dose of gross-out humor.

"In order to get people to love a show, you need to alienate some people, whereas network shows in general have a business model where they have to go for the middle," said Alec Berg, executive producer and writer for "Silicon Valley," nominated in its first season.

"They need to get the most people, but unfortunately that costs you the people who are super passionate."

The other new kid in the comedy race is "Orange Is the New Black," the darling of Netflix's original summer programming. The series is based on a real-life story about a women's prison, with situations that often stray far from laughs.

To date, HBO's sexually explicit female-driven "Sex and the City," which won the best comedy Emmy in 2002, is the only cable show to do so.

A FRESH 'ORANGE'

Much of the difference between a broadcast network comedy and a cable show comes down to advertiser interests, which networks must cater to, but premium cable channels such as HBO and ad-free streaming platform Netflix can avoid. This leads to content that pushes the boundaries, said Berg.

"People are getting more used to watching things in places where there are no FCC (Federal Communications Commission) guidelines, there are no censors and there are no standards and practices people sitting around," Berg said. "Those (guidelines) are starting to feel very antiquated."

For Netflix, which entered the Emmy race just last year and has a total of 31 nominations this year, "Orange" may just be its "Sex and the City," after scooping up 12 nods.

"'Orange' has the dramatic element, it has the feel of its time and it has a strong ensemble of women," said Glenn Whipp, awards columnist for the Los Angeles Times. "It feels fresh."

"Orange" may also have benefited from the buzz surrounding its second season release in June, which coincided with the Emmy voting period.

But "Modern Family" still holds its place as a frontrunner for many awards predictors, who believe the ABC show will win its fifth best comedy Emmy on Monday as it continues to reflect contemporary family dynamics and featured a gay wedding in its latest season. Whipp said traditionally, Emmy voters tend to select more conservative choices within the comedy field.

"The show is just going to be hugely appealing to voters because it makes a social statement, but it is done in an audience-friendly way," said Whipp. "It is both a critical and a commercial, popular success."

(The story corrects spelling of "censor" from "sensor" in paragraph 11)

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Tom Brown)

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