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At the offices of Sterling Cooper, the fictional agency where Mad Men is set, they'd have toasted the news with a large Jack Daniel's and some celebratory Lucky Strikes - consumed, of course, behind hefty walnut desks.

The stylish 1960s period drama, about a hard-drinking, hard-smoking team of New York executives during the early days of the advertising industry, crowned its remarkable debut season by securing 16 nominations at this year's Emmy awards, including one for John Hamm in the lead actor category.

In a potentially historic turning point for America's TV industry and the 60-year-old Emmy competition, Mad Men, the legal drama Damages, and the crime series Dexter became the first programmes originating on minor cable networks to be shortlisted for the all-important best drama series gong.

Glenn Close, the star of Damages, was shortlisted in the best actress category, while Michael C. Hall of Dexter became a contender for lead actor.

Yesterday's announcement of the Emmy shortlist also raised British hopes for awards, underlining the growing influence of both the UK's stars and its TV formats on US broadcasting.

The BBC's period drama Cranford was nominated for three awards, including best mini-series.

Dame Judi Dench, who took the role of spinster Matty Jenkyns in the adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, is up for best lead actress in a mini-series.

Her co-star, Dame Eileen Atkins, has been shortlisted in the best supporting actress in a mini-series slot.

Ricky Gervais looked set to continue his tradition of self-deprecating acceptance speeches, after the final episode of Extras was nominated in the category of best made-for-TV movie. His co-star Ashley Jensen was also shortlisted for her role in the show.

Other UK stars looking to secure one of the 90 awards, which will be announced on 21 September, include Tom Wilkinson, who was nominated for his role in the HBO film Recount and his supporting role in John Adams, a high-brow HBO series about America's founding fathers which secured the most overall nominations, with a total of 23.

Ralph Fiennes was shortlisted for his role in Bernard and Doris, while Hugh Laurie, whose career has been revitalised after he took the lead role in the medical drama House, America's best-rated TV drama, was also nominated in the best actor category.

Most cheeringly - for the fortunes of British TV moguls, at least - home-grown formats also performed strongly.

The programmes American Idol - a version of Pop Idol, featuring Simon Cowell - and Dancing with the Stars, which is the brainchild of the British producer Nigel Lythgoe, had their domination of the ratings charts (Idol pulls in 30 million viewers) recognised after they were nominated in the best reality competition category.

The US version of Antiques Roadshow was shortlisted in the best reality programme category, while the American version of The Office was nominated for best comedy series.

To America's large TV networks, which are already reeling from the effects of this year's writers' strike together with a downward trend in audience figures, the heavy presence of contenders from a variety of small cable channels reflected a worrying trend.

Relatively minor cable channels are now flourishing as creators of high-quality dramas.

Although they have smaller audiences, their success is making firms like HBO (which was shut out of the best drama derby for the first time since 1998) look off the pace.

"This represents the changing of the guard in a lot of ways," said Ken Ehrlich, executive producer of this year's Emmy awards.

All 450 nominees were announced yesterday at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles.

The hosts were Kristin Chenoweth, Neil Patrick Harris and TV academy chairman John Shaffner. At the end of the session, Mr Shaffner surprised both Harris and Chenoweth by announcing each actor's supporting-actor nomination.

Chenoweth, of Pushing Daisies, stood open-jawed, while Harris, the star of How I Met Your Mother, pumped his fist and said, "Nice!"

The trio then blew out candles on a birthday cake to celebrate the Emmys' 60th anniversary.

- INDEPENDENT