By Piya Sinha-Roy and Lisa Richwine
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When fictional columnist Carrie Bradshaw helped HBO grab its first series Emmy award in 2001 for comedy "Sex and the City," the premium cable network's main competition came from broadcast networks CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox.
Today, the field fighting for Emmy glory includes contenders from the past few years like basic cable channels AMC and FX, but also the much talked-about rookie, the video streaming service Netflix. And then there's a resurgent PBS, the U.S. public television channel.
Nowhere is the revolution in how people watch television more apparent than when the TV industry gathers on Sunday for its annual prime time Emmy awards ceremony.
Among the contenders for the night's top drama trophy are AMC's "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," Showtime's "Homeland," Netflix's "House of Cards," and PBS's British period drama "Downton Abbey."
And, of course, HBO. The network has earned the most nominations for 13 straight years, and will compete for best drama on Sunday with its medieval fantasy series "Game of Thrones."
In all, HBO collected 108 nominations this year, its highest total since 2004, and more than twice as many as its closest competitors, CBS and NBC with 53 each. The nods include best comedy nominations for HBO's "Veep" and "Girls."
"'Breaking Bad' and Netflix might not exist like they do without HBO having led the way in showing that really smart adult dramas could draw an audience," "Breaking Bad" producer Tom Schnauz told Reuters.
HBO landed its first series Emmy award for outstanding comedy in 2001 for its ground-breaking, female-led show "Sex and the City," starring Sarah Jessica Parker as fictional New York journalist Carrie Bradshaw.
This year, basic cable networks AMC and 21st Century Fox's FX are strong Emmy contenders. FX's horror mini-series "American Horror Story: Asylum" led all shows with 17 nods, and will face off with HBO's Liberace biopic "Behind the Candelabra," starring Michael Douglas, in the miniseries/movie category.
Despite the growing number of critically acclaimed series across multiple networks, producers of shows at channels competing with HBO still see it as the leading provider of original content.
"AMC is a real competitor to HBO, but HBO still has the programming," "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner told Reuters. "Mad Men," an Emmy darling in years past, is nominated in 12 categories this year, including best drama series.
As the industry evolved, HBO built ties with top Hollywood actors, producers and writers, and consistently churned out award-winning series, movies and documentaries.
"They have a two-decade-deep pipeline of development and artists' relationships, and a reputation for taking risks," said Modi Wiczyk, co-chief executive of Media Rights Capital, an independent studio that has produced shows for HBO, Netflix, CBS and ABC.
'A UNIQUE ASSET'
In addition to hauling in critical praise and awards, HBO is a key profit driver for its media company parent, Time Warner Inc.
HBO and sister channel Cinemax likely will generate $1.7 billion in cash flow this year, according to research firm SNL Kagan. Global subscribers to HBO reached 114 million last year, more than any other competitor, Time Warner said in its 2012 annual report.
Demand for its original programming helps fuel HBO's growth, Morningstar analyst Michael Corty said. The most recent season of hit series "Game of Thrones" averaged 14.4 million U.S. viewers per episode when original showings, repeats, DVR and on-demand viewing, and streams on the HBO Go app, according to HBO.
"HBO has proven they have a unique asset," Corty said.
Despite HBO's leading presence at the Emmy awards, the top prize of best drama series eluded the channel in recent years. Voters bestowed the accolade on AMC's 1960s advertising drama "Mad Men" for four years in a row between 2008 and 2011, and Showtime's terrorism thriller series "Homeland" in 2012. The last time HBO won best drama was in 2007 for mob series "The Sopranos."
"Game of Thrones," which picked up 16 Emmy nominations, may lose the drama series honor on Sunday to "Breaking Bad," AMC's gritty drug-dealing tale that drew an avid following this summer for the show's final season.
"Breaking Bad," about a school teacher turned meth kingpin, has never won the top drama honor. "Some feel that's overdue," said James Hibberd, senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. "If it wasn't for 'Breaking Bad,' I think 'Game of Thrones' would have an excellent shot" at that honor.
HBO also is battling buzz for Netflix, which made history with the first Emmy nods in major categories for shows delivered online. Netflix picked up 14 nominations for its original programs, including nine for "House of Cards," a 13-episode political thriller released all at once on the streaming service.
Wiczyk of Media Rights Capital, the studio that produced "House of Cards," said Netflix also proved willing to take risks when it licensed that show. Netflix committed up front to two seasons of the Kevin Spacey drama, helping it edge out HBO and other networks that showed interest in the show.
Both HBO and Netflix "are innovative on the business side, and both are pushing the creative envelope," he said.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Philip Barbara)