So whose lunch is Netflix eating?
That’s one of the big questions to emerge from Thursday’s Emmys nominations announcement, where for the first time in its history Netflix topped the list of all TV distributors with 112 nominations, thanks to shows such as “Stranger Things,” “The Crown” and “Glow.” It also marked the first instance in 18 years — since the early days of “The Sopranos” era — that HBO didn’t land in the top spot.
Leaving aside the money and greenlights that Netflix expended to get there, the achievement is remarkable. Just three years ago, Netflix was in seventh place, with 34 nominations. Five years ago it had even fewer, just 14. Now it’s ruling TV’s prestige mountain.
But to assume that the company is cutting into HBO’s nominations would be misguided. The “Game of Thrones” network still finished with 108 nominations, just three fewer than last year and the same or more than in the majority of the past five years. (And it would have had even more had it had a limited series like “Big Little Lies” in the mix, as it often does.) For all the hand-wringing at HBO — and there’s been plenty of it lately — it hasn’t really fallen off in the Emmys department; this was a moment more symbolic than anything else.
The obvious victim here, then, would seem to be broadcast networks. After all, we’re told often that broadcast television has ceded the game of prestige series to the new high-end players, particularly Netflix. The networks — CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox — just don’t offer the TV that discerning viewers and their 20,000+ surrogates at the Television Academy like to see anymore. Netflix’s 112 Emmy nominations have been built on the backs of all the mediocrity the networks now churn out.
But a look at the numbers reveals a surprise: The broadcast networks are not hemorrhaging Emmy nominations. In fact, their number of slots this year, 159, actually went up from 2017, when they gathered 146. (The growth is powered mainly by NBC, which landed in third place with 78 nominations, thanks to hauls for “This Is Us,” “Saturday Night Live” and “Jesus Christ: Superstar.”)
Nor have the broadcast networks been trending downward even before last year. Five years ago, as Netflix was first starting to become an Emmys player, the broadcast networks garnered 170 nominations. They’ve barely lost a step in the past five years, dropping just 6 percent even as Netflix has shot up 700 percent. Clearly it’s someone else’s Emmy nominations Netflix is grabbing. But whose?
The answer is somewhat unexpected: Basic cable. That platform was once rich with possibility, as AMC shows like “Mad Men” gave pay-networks like HBO and Showtime a run for their money. And that’s all come to a crashing halt.
Take a look at how the mighty have fallen. Five years ago, AMC had 26 Emmy nominations, with juggernauts like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” This year? It had one.
Keep on going down the cable dial. Comedy Central? Sixteen back then, in the heyday of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. This year it had six. Lifetime? Twelve back in 2013. This year it had just four.
Sundance Channel nabbed 10 in 2013 with the Jane Campion phenom “Top of the Lake.” This year it didn’t land a single nomination. Like many of these networks, it’s just wasn’t commissioning the kind of high-end television that Emmy voters like.
Because here’s the thing about prestige television: It’s really expensive to make. Writers are expensive, actors are expensive, producers are expensive and production itself is expensive. You do it, really, only if your business model is seriously humming. And basic cable isn’t, what with all the talk of unbundling and all the cord-cutting (which of course reduces a prime source of revenue, the fees providers pay networks).
So Netflix (and Hulu et al.) are doing it instead. Their business models are humming. And they’re reaping the Emmys rewards. (Worth noting: There are more nominations to be had overall, as some categories have expanded to accommodate all the added TV.)
FX continues to do well, leading all basic cable outlets with 50 nominations this year. But it can’t hold back the tide of all of these losses. Oh, and did we mention that the network is about to lose Ryan Murphy, a big reason for those nominations? He’s going to — yep — Netflix.
The broadcast networks have surely lost ground historically. This year they represented with one just one slot on the drama list — a long way from 2005, when the majority of the drama nominees and the big winner (“Lost”) came from a broadcast network. And look at how ABC stalwart “Modern Family” was not nominated for outstanding comedy for the first time in nine seasons.
But it’s also not beaten all that much of a retreat. ABC this year had “Black-ish” instead of “Modern Family” on the comedy list. Broadcast, with its reasonably healthy ad revenue and ability to take at least a few bigger creative gambles, seems to be stable on the Emmy-nominations front, landing more or less in the mid−100s. Not so much for basic cable.
And therein lies an interesting lesson about the way television moves.
Once the platform played the disrupter role at the Emmys, nabbing nominations from networks and HBO. Now struggling ad-supported networks are themselves being disrupted by new players with a new model: paid digital subscription, which helps finance all this content. (They can spend even without profits, thanks to Wall Street’s love of that subscription model).
Apple and its TV ambitions are soon on their way, as the company greenlights one high-end show after another. It might seem crazy that a new player could take over from Netflix. Then again, it once seemed crazy Netflix could take over for basic cable.