Five years ago, with very little fanfare, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences made a small change to the Emmy Awards rulebook. From that point forward, TV shows streamed via the Internet would be eligible to compete for trophies.
Reaction in September 2008: Please. Who cares?
Reaction in September 2013: Panic!
For anyone who has missed the avalanche of headlines and hand-wringing over the past several weeks, the TV industry is gearing up for a potentially historic night on Sunday. Netflix, the online subscription powerhouse that racked up 14 nominations with shows such as “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development,” could become the first digital media service to score major honors during TV’s most prestigious awards ceremony. It would be not only a game changer for the industry, but a huge victory for cord-cutters everywhere.
Those who ignored the fine print in 2008 are paying close attention now. Still, though the awards show is breaking new ground, this isn’t the first time the Emmys have shaken things up with a rule change.
For example, notice how nearly every year brings about another cable clean sweep? These days, it’s rare for a broadcast network show to make headlines during the Emmycast. However, it wasn’t always that way: Cable wasn’t even allowed to compete until 1988, the Emmy Awards’ 40th anniversary. The decision from the television academy, made in a similar low-key manner, initially got zero reaction from the industry or the public — until more than a decade later, when the reign of HBO’s “The Sopranos” began, and premium cable networks started winning everything.
But Netflix invading the Emmy Awards could prove to be an even bigger story, given how quickly the Internet company has risen to the top.
“It took cable 13 years to get its first drama series program nomination, whereas it took the Internet six years,” John Leverence, the television academy’s senior vice president of awards, said in an e-mail. “New distribution platforms — even cable with its wildly precocious HBO — don’t start getting drama series program nominations at the tender age of just six years.”
TV experts agree that Netflix’s rise was unusually speedy, particularly in the big award categories. “House of Cards” is up for best drama, along with the lead acting nods for Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.
“It’s been a major challenge for the networks,” said Ron Simon, a television and radio curator at the Paley Center for Media. “If you go back at look at history at some of the other forces that had to be reckoned with, it generally took a few years.” He credits “House of Cards” for making such a big splash that it demanded attention, and for being a perfect storm that brought together a big star (Spacey), famous director (David Fincher) and popular subject matter (Washington, what else?).
“It created so much buzz,” Simon said. “And you could just not ignore it.”
While Netflix may seem like a bigger deal these days, it’s worth looking back at a few other eligibility changes that made waves.
• 1986: A fourth network joins the fray. Once upon a time, three networks ruled the airwaves: ABC, NBC and CBS. Along with PBS, they were the only ones in the Emmy nomination game. But then in 1986, a tiny network called Fox came on to the scene, starting out in a small number of households before expanding into a legitimate prime-time presence. The channel turned heads with attention-grabbing programs such as the raunchy sitcom “Married. . . With Children” and variety series “The Tracey Ullman Show.” At first, these series weren’t recognized by the academy. But in 1989, “Tracey Ullman” got a slew of nominations, putting Fox on the map with a big win for variety, music or comedy program. (And Paula Abdul even snagged a trophy for her work on the show as a choreographer.) Fox’s other series slowly started to take off and grab nods as well, from “Cops” to “The Simpsons” and “In Living Color.” The once-ignored network was officially a contender.
• 1988: Cable is allowed to attend the party. Though the major broadcast networks could hear the cable drum beating louder, making waves with new programming, broadcasters tried to pretend it wasn’t happening. Unfortunately, they were required to pay attention in December 1987, when the academy officially allowed national cable networks — which, at that point, reached over half of the American viewing audience — to vie for Emmy awards the following year. Things started slowly; in 1988, cable networks received 15 nominations, including six for HBO and six for Showtime. A decade went by, and cable began gaining ground, particularly HBO. By 1998, cable programing was getting so much recognition, the industry ditched its cable-only ceremony, the CableACE Awards. No one was sad to see it go. “The Sopranos” landed a best drama nod in 1999, the first cable series to do so; “Sex and the City” won best comedy in 2001.
• 2004: Premium cable crashes the party. And the broadcast networks officially grew annoyed, as “The Sopranos” became the first cable series to be named best drama in 2004. It became an extremely sore subject: Broadcast networks started complaining that restriction-free cable had an advantage, given its ability to air much more mature and compelling material. Cable execs shrugged it off. (“I think it’s a real insult to say a show gets recognized because people can swear,” one cable executive was quoted as saying in a New York Daily News story from 1999.) The trend continues — the last broadcast network show to win the award for best drama was “24,” in 2006.
• 2013: Digital media begins what could be a long reign at the top. And we’ll see what happens Sunday on Emmy night.