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Primetime Emmys come and go (yawn) during pulsating Cowboys-Giants game

Host Neil Patrick Harris opened the show with a song. Photos: Ed Bark

Toiling in relative obscurity and at times acutely aware of it, the 61st annual Primetime Emmy Awards tried not to look too pathetic Sunday night.

Host Neil Patrick Harris opened the show, carried by CBS this year, by virtually begging viewers to stay tuned via a song that ended with "Put down that remote."

All concerned knew what they were up against -- a marquee Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants game and the concurrent unveiling of Jerry's Palace on NBC's Sunday Night Football.

The Emmys got a half-hour head start on the game, which kicked off a bit later than scheduled at 7:31 p.m. (central). This meant that Kristin Chenoweth's super-weepy acceptance speech during the show's opening segment may have been seen by more viewers than the climactic awards for best comedy and drama series.

Chenoweth won a best supporting actress statue for ABC's canceled Pushing Daisies, prompting her to note, "I'm unemployed now, so I'd like to be on Mad Men. I also like The Office and 24."

The respective big wins for NBC's 30 Rock and AMC's Mad Men, both of which repeated last year's triumphs, came during the fourth quarter of a wildly unpredictable, seesaw Cowboys-Giants game attended by the largest crowd in NFL history. So Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner may have been talking into a vacuum when he said shortly after 10 p.m., "We worked very hard to not have it stink in the second year."

Host Harris made a game effort to keep things rolling, getting off his best line in the early going by telling attendees and viewers, "Here's hoping Kanye West likes 30 Rock."

First-time winner Ken Howard, who got a supporting actor Emmy for HBO's Grey Gardens, later picked up on that motif. "I'll make my speech as brief as possible in the hope it won't be interrupted by a congressman or a rapper," he said.

Nominee Drew Barrymore looks on and acts up a storm while her Grey Gardens co-star, Jessica Lange, takes home the big prize.

The show periodically had the feeling of a death rattle. Harris for his part briefly "hijacked" the proceedings in the person of his Dr. Horrible character, an Internet sensation in short webisodes created by Joss Whedon of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer fame.

"I think it's safe to say that the era of TV is over," he said before another Whedon favorite, Nathan Fillion from his short-lived Firefly series, interceded to more or less make the case for the old-school tube over the over-flowing Internet.

Later in the show, presenter Ricky Gervais cracked wise about the princely residuals he's receiving from the NBC version of The Office, which he created in its original British form.

"That joke was just for the 5,000 people in this room, not for the 5,000 watching at home," he added.

Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show, who won yet another Emmy Sunday night, said he appreciated the award and also the opportunity to retreat backstage to "watch a football game."

Harris closed the show with what in reality is close to being a hopeful plea.

"May we see you again on broadcast television next year," he said.

That's definitely not a given. The Academy of Television Arts & Science's deal with the Big 4 broadcast networks, who rotate Emmy telecasts, is up for re-negotiation. Diminishing ratings and cable's latter day dominance of the ceremony make it possible that television's annual showcase of its best and brightest could wind up on a pay network the next time around.

Big nights for Cherry Jones of 24 and Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston

For the record, Grey Gardens, 30 Rock and the PBS miniseries Little Dorrit won the most Emmys Sunday night, with each taking home three. Mad Men and Comedy Central had two each.

Cable productions won seven of the 12 acting awards, including repeats by Bryan Cranston in AMC's Breaking Bad and Glenn Close in FX's Damages. Toni Collette was a surprise winner as best actress in a comedy series for her multiple personality turns in Showtime's The United States of Tara

And in a streak that's unlikely to ever be broken, CBS' The Amazing Race won for the seventh straight time in the best reality competition series category. It's been the only victor since the category was created.

For a complete list of Sunday's winners, go here. For many out there in television land, they're probably still a pretty well-kept secret.