The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Apple’s big streaming bet gets a shock from the Emmys. Disney gets a boost.

Apple had major designs on prizes, but voters have other ideas

A scene from “The Mandalorian.” The program helped Disney Plus land an Emmy nomination for outstanding drama series, surprising the industry, while Apple failed to do the same. (Disney Plus/AP)

When Disney and Apple each launched their splashy new video services last November, the divide was clear.

Disney was going for the broad mass-market with Disney Plus, a volume play that sought as many subscribers as possible with its decades-long roster of highly commercial content. Apple, which paid more than $5 billion to sign up a raft of Oscar and Emmy talent for its service Apple TV Plus, wanted prestige, awards, respect.

Then Tuesday happened.

As Emmys voters announced their 2020 nomination choices, Disney Plus was surprisingly placed in the most elite of television company: Its Star Wars origin series “The Mandalorian” was nominated for the Emmys’ top prize of outstanding drama series, defying the predictions of an army of pundits and consultants.

And Apple, which spent a whopping $150 million to produce the TV-world drama “The Morning Show” and was thought a lock for outstanding drama? It ended up shut out from the category, startling those same pundits and consultants.

The developments underscore how streaming has upended the old rules of television and its line between prestige and commercial entities. Maybe even more important, they threw curveballs to two of America’s most prominent companies.

At a time of darkness for Disney, its movies out of theaters and theme parks embattled, the conglomerate was granted a major gift: a place at the table at television’s most exclusive club and a chance to bill its heavily capitalized streaming service as more than just a destination for Disneyheads.

For Apple, on the other hand, the news was a harsh and potentially strategy-changing reminder that the money and brand ubiquity that have helped it dominate the tech sector aren’t having anywhere near that effect on Hollywood.

Apple’s unveiling of “The Morning Show” came with much fanfare last fall. The company paid a “Game of Thrones”-like $15 million per episode to enlist the services of Steve Carell, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon, a trio with 17 Emmy nominations between them; Witherspoon is also an Oscar winner.

Though reviews were sometimes inconsistent, the highly decorated cast and creators, as well as the major awards campaign staged by the company, made many pundits put it on their front-runner lists based on surveys of voters.

But when the Emmys nominations came around, voters left the show off the list for best drama, and even some acting categories. (Carell and Aniston received nominations along with several supporting actors; Witherspoon did not.) Other high-profile Apple TV Plus shows, including the science-fiction action-adventure “See” and the alternate space-race story “For All Mankind,” did not land any nominations; a few other productions landed smaller nominations.

The absences are more than just an ego bruise: The Television Academy that votes on the Emmys consists of more than 25,000 television industry professionals and is considered one of the industry’s great bellwethers.

Equally important, it highlighted that Apple may need to change its approach. The firm has been attempting to produce a relatively limited amount of content at the highest echelon, a quality-over-quantity tack that sets it apart from many digital competitors.

But that only works with a high number of arrows hitting the bull’s eye, not when your best shot misses the mark.

“I think they’re in a very difficult situation,” said Mikey Campbell, a close chronicler of Apple and editor of the watchdog site AppleInsider. “They’ve had a slow drip of content but it’s not always getting acclaim, and they’re not always getting subscribers.”

Short of an acquisition that would bring in a large supply of content, he said, there aren’t many easy fixes for Apple. One possibility is more commercial bets. The company may have tipped its hand in that direction several weeks ago when it agreed to pay more than $100 million for a Will Smith thriller.

Campbell said Apple TV Plus’s recent month-long extension of a three-month free promotion suggested it may not be getting the subscriber numbers it wanted. The company has not revealed subscriber numbers for the service.

Apple and Disney spokespeople did not comment for this story.

For Disney, news could not get better than a major “Mandalorian” nomination — or come at a better time. With Disneyland closed and “Mulan” off the calendar in the wake of theaters’ coronavirus closures, the company has struggled for revenue.

The “Mandalorian” news — the “Baby Yoda” show notched 15 nominations overall — will help the service continue to recruit new customers, much in the way Netflix rode its Emmys momentum from “House of Cards” early in its existence to build a large subscriber base. At most recent count, Disney Plus had 55 million subscribers.

The nomination solidifies Disney Plus’s status as a venue not just for people who love its characters but consumers of quality TV generally, especially coming after the critical and social media sensation that was “Hamilton.” The “Mandalorian” nomination puts the show in the category of sterling television properties such as “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which all went on to win.

Disney also has an easy opportunity to promote the service on the Emmys telecast, to be aired on Disney-owned ABC on Sept. 20.

Meanwhile, the second season of “The Mandalorian,” which was shot before the lockdown, is set to debut before the end of 2020, and experts say the Emmys attention might make a whole new class of people tune in.

“I think it’ll help them, especially in the run-up to the second season,” said Josh Spiegel, a writer and frequent chronicler of Disney.

The nomination will also provide a rare bright spot when Disney announces earnings next week, with revenue totals expected to be dismal for the most recent quarter.

Star Wars has not been an awards-contending property in decades. It has not won an Oscar in 37 years and not had a live-action Emmy nomination in 35 years. And even then, many nominations were in technical categories.

The news is thus a shot for Disney’s Lucasfilm division, which the conglomerate bought for $4 billion in 2012. After some early film successes, though, the unit has struggled. “Solo” underperformed in 2018, the future direction of the film properties is uncertain, and a combination of creative and coronavirus concerns last week led to the next film being pushed from December 2022 to December 2023.

“The Mandalorian,” which has become both a viral meme sensation and a topic of social media conversation, provides a way forward.

But Spiegel cautioned against too much optimism given Disney’s other issues.

Looking to the success of “The Mandalorian” to save Disney, he said, might place “too many eggs in Baby Yoda’s basket."