HBO may wrest Emmy show away from networks. For the first time in its 54-year history, the ceremony honoring TV's best would be available only to pay-TV viewers

HBO isn’t just encroaching on the broadcast networks’ Emmy turf by grabbing a hefty portion of the nominations and trophies for shows like ”The Sopranos,” ”Sex and the City,” and ”Six Feet Under.” Now, it may take the whole Emmy telecast. According to the Los Angeles Times, the premium cable network is negotiating with the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (ATAS) for the right to air the awards show for the next five years, which means that, for the first time in Emmy’s 54-year history, the ceremony honoring the best in television would be available only to pay-TV audiences.

The shift away from the free TV networks — which in the last decade have rotated the telecast among ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC — began with the Academy’s raising the price of the telecast rights from $3 million to $10 million. (That’s still far less than the $50 million ABC pays each year for the Oscars, or the $25 million CBS pays for the Grammys, whose audience of about 20 million is roughly equal in size to that of the Emmys.) ATAS estimated that NBC, which aired the most recent Emmy show in September, netted about $20 million after production and promotional costs and figured it could split the difference, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The networks, however, haven’t been willing to pay more than $4 million, according to the Reporter.

HBO (which, like, is an AOL Time Warner company) won’t even confirm that it’s the mystery bidder willing to put up the $50 million fee. An HBO spokesperson released a statement, saying, ”It’s inappropriate for us to comment on the business of the television academy.” Still, if HBO carried the show, it could do so free of commercials, and it would presumably try to ensure a wider audience by unscrambling its signal for the night and allowing the show to air on sister AOL Time Warner basic cable outlets like TNT and TBS. Nonetheless, even that move would keep the show off the air in the 15 percent of U.S. households that don’t have cable or satellite TV.

The broadcast networks are grumbling about the prospect of losing the Emmy show to HBO. It’s hard enough, the networks have said, to compete for the actual awards against HBO, which has shorter seasons (13 episodes to the networks’ 22), no commercials, and no censors. But if the show moves to cable, the networks could decide to take their ball and go home. ”If that’s the case, CBS will counterprogram aggressively,” CBS spokesman Chris Ender told the Reporter. ”If they make this move, CBS will no longer participate in the Emmys and will withdraw all support for ATAS.” One network executive told Reuters the broadcasters might even set up their own non-ATAS, non-cable Awards show. ”I can very well see that there would be an entity that would be happy to sponsor a prime-time awards show that doesn’t have the cable influence, and is not the three-hour HBO infomercial that the Emmy Awards currently is,” the network exec said.

The deal is still subject to approval by the ATAS board of governors, which could decide as soon as Wednesday, the Times reports. But even academy insiders are not sure that a five-year exclusive deal with HBO is best for ATAS, since it might look as if HBO is essentially buying the awards by underwriting the Academy singlehandedly. Plus, with viewers’ limited access to the show and the networks threatening to counterprogram against it, the ceremony might lose much of its audience. ”If I were at HBO,” an ATAS source told the Times, ”I would rather be on NBC, with 20 million viewers, having people thank HBO.”