Emmys enter a brave new Web era

Brian Stelter / New York Times News Service /

Published Jul 19, 2013 at 05:00AM

In the 65-year-old competition for Primetime Emmy Awards, the online streaming network Netflix officially joined its cable and broadcast counterparts Thursday, picking up a best drama nomination for the political thriller “House of Cards.”

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, who portray the scheming husband and wife at the center of “House of Cards,” were also nominated in the lead actor and actress categories.

The announcements represented the first time that a series distributed via the Internet — not television — was nominated for the television industry’s most prestigious statue.

The nominations gave instant credibility to Netflix, which scored an additional five nominations for the comedy “Arrested Development” and the horror series “Hemlock Grove,” while simultaneously underscoring the declining influence of the major broadcast networks.

For the second year in a row, the legacy networks failed to land a single nomination in the best drama category. The sole entry from broadcast is the period piece “Downton Abbey,” which PBS imports from Britain’s ITV.

The strong showing by Netflix will undoubtedly prompt others to get in the game, said Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media in New York.

“We will see a burst in original series online,” Adgate predicted, noting that Hulu, the digital TV service jointly owned by Walt Disney Co., Comcast Corp. and News Corp., has earmarked $750 million for new programming. “Getting original and exclusive content will help separate the companies.”

A clubby world that still pays heed to federal communications regulations written nearly 80 years ago, the legacy networks were forced to adjust in the late 1990s to attention-grabbing HBO series such as the Emmy favorite “The Sopranos.” More recently, AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” “Mad Men” and other hits on basic cable have drained more viewers from broadcast.

Now, Emmy’s embrace of “House of Cards” augurs a coming tide of original online content — a genre that until earlier this year was often derided as synonymous with “webisodes” and cheap, short videos a la YouTube gag-meisters Fred Figglehorn and Ryan Higa. (Organizers allowed online producers to submit their work in Emmy categories starting in 2007.)

Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, said by telephone that he watched the nominations news conference in bed and was thrilled with the results. “The number of awards this morning was sort of a shock to everybody. We didn’t plan a big enough party.”

He said he was thankful that the Emmy voters were “so open to the idea” of Internet distribution. “In a way, it solidifies that television is television, no matter what pipe brings it to the screen,” he said.

All this is already changing what viewers see. In “House of Cards,” for example, producers ditched the cliffhangers that are a cliche of prime-time dramas — because they figured that people who were interested in the show would binge-watch anyway, so there was no need of trying to coax them back with a contrived lure.

Netflix, which has 36 million subscribers, has sought to redefine itself as not merely a distributor of other studios’ content but as a programmer in its own right.

The company has invested heavily in original series, gambling that such programming would elevate the network’s standing in the same way that “Mad Men” did for AMC and “The Sopranos” did for HBO. Its $100 million two-year bet on the political thriller “House of Cards” delivered a full-house of nominations for the political thriller: including best drama and lead actor and actress nods for Spacey and Robin Wright.

What about the networks?

Some experts foretell a continuing slide toward irrelevance by traditional networks unless they update their thinking. “To stem the tide, broadcasters are going to have to do something they have been hesitant to do in many years: Invest financially in content that goes beyond the current copycat world of goofy reality shows, smart-mouthed sitcoms and bloody crime dramas,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University. “Video consumers are leaving the big networks to find interesting shows on cable and now through streaming.”

Of course, Netflix is not yet the beast that ate Hollywood. Skeptics have faulted the company — which hopes its on-demand service will eventually make Nielsen TV ratings obsolete — for refusing to cough up viewership data. “If People Really Love Netflix Originals, Why Won’t (Netflix) Tell Us How Many Watch Them?” Forbes.com asked in a tough-minded blog post this week.

No matter what those figures might be, it’s highly unlikely they would match, say, the 20 million who show up each week to watch CBS’ “NCIS,” last season’s No. 1 TV show.

Netflix had campaigned for nominations for both “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development,” the canceled Fox sitcom that it revived to much fanfare earlier this year. Sarandos acknowledged some disappointment about “Arrested” not being among the six shows nominated for outstanding comedy. In a consolation of sorts, among three nominations the show earned, one of its stars, Jason Bateman, was included in the lead actor in a comedy category.

Of course, broadcasting is not dead. For all the attention lavished on Netflix, the traditional networks weren’t exactly ignored by Emmy voters. Overall, Netflix picked up 14 Emmy nominations, while CBS and NBC each drew 53 nominations; ABC got 45. By contrast, HBO, which has been making critically acclaimed shows for decades, had 108 nominations, its highest total in nearly a decade. Last year it earned 81.

And while broadcast was shut out again in the best drama category, comedy was another story, with last year’s winner, ABC’s “Modern Family,” getting another nod, along with CBS’ smash “The Big Bang Theory” and the final season of NBC’s “30 Rock.”

But even in this category, a barrier was shattered: “Louie,” FX’s scabrous series starring Louis CK, became the first basic-cable series to show up among the best-comedy contenders.

The conclusion is inescapable: The old world is cracking apart. And at least one familiar face thinks that’s a good thing.

“We will start to see, hopefully, more organizations and companies stepping up and saying, ‘We want to order more programs and get into the content game,’” said Spacey, who plays the vengeful Congressman Frank Underwood in “House of Cards.”

“For the industry, it’s great because it creates jobs for more writers and more directors and more actors.”

But the effects of Emmy nominations — or wins — will be tough for Netflix to measure. What the awards provide is a kind of confirmation of the industry’s respect and admiration, something that doesn’t immediately translate to its bottom line, but is appreciated nonetheless.

The Emmy winners will be announced Sept. 22 in a live broadcast on CBS, hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, a star of “How I Met Your Mother” on that network.

The race that is traditionally the most closely watched in the TV industry is outstanding drama. In that category, “House of Cards” will challenge last year’s winner “Homeland” on Showtime and the four-time winner “Mad Men” on AMC, as well as AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” PBS’ “Downton Abbey” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” The one drama that was nominated last year, but was not this year, was HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”