Why Netflix is Not Emmy’s Online TV Vanguard

July 18, 2013
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HouseOfCardsEvery year the Primetime Emmy Award nominations tell a story. Most times, though, it’s a story about the nuances of the Emmys themselves; when Downton Abbey made the switch from miniseries to drama series last year, for example, it highlighted not a dramatic shift in the television landscape and more PBS’ expert negotiation of category vagaries. While the nominations or lack of nominations for specific series or performers could be considered signs of momentum gained or momentum lost, whether or not Tatiana Maslany earned an Emmy nomination—she didn’t—was always going to be a narrative more relevant to fans of Orphan Black and obsessive Emmy prognosticators than it was to “television” writ large.

However, while it would be ill advised to overemphasize the importance of the Emmy Awards, this year’s nominations have been identified as a bellwether moment for Netflix’s original content and “Internet television” in general. The New York Times headlined its Emmys report with the innocuous “Netflix Does Well in 2013 Primetime Emmy Nominations.” Variety went with “Emmys Recognize Digital Age as Netflix Crashes The Party.” They’re both headlines that read as though they were written in advance, a clear narrative for journalists to latch onto to sell this year’s Emmy nominations as “important,” knowing Netflix was likely to compete with House of Cards and Arrested DevelopmentHouse of Cards proved the big winner, earning nominations for Outstanding Drama Series, Lead Actor in a Drama Series, and Lead Actress in a Drama Series. Before the nominations were even announced, Academy chair Bruce Rosenblum acknowledged this narrative, citing the usual boilerplate about television changing into a multi-platform experience in his introduction to the live nominations announcement.

While acknowledging that Netflix’s rise is noteworthy, I reject its ties to the narrative of online television for two reasons. First and foremost, it is meaningful that the series Netflix submitted for consideration—which also included Hemlock Grove, and which earned a total of 14 nominations—are in no significant way a departure from traditional forms of television content. House of Cards is a premium cable drama series being distributed by Netflix; Arrested Development is a broadcast comedy turned premium cable comedy being distributed by Netflix. While there is clear innovation in terms of how these shows are reaching audiences, and I’ll acknowledge that Arrested Development’s puzzle-like structure is uniquely suited to that distribution model, we’re still considering series that would be strikingly familiar to Emmy voters.

These are not nominations for webseries like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, competing in categories specifically designed for web-based content. Julia Stiles was not nominated as Lead Actress in a Drama Series for Blue, a webseries distributed through the FOX-owned WIGS YouTube channel. There was actually a “webseries” nominated in a non-special class category: Machinima’s Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn earned a nomination for Outstanding Main Title Sequence, a nomination that oddly enough isn’t mentioned by Variety or The New York Times. Although I understand why Netflix is garnering the attention, to suggest that the Emmys are recognizing the digital age based on a showy drama series starring Kevin Spacey and produced by David Fincher, or a comedy series that was nominated for three-consecutive years in its previous life on broadcast, is to suggest that the Emmys simply acknowledging you can access the medium of television online outside of special class categories is itself remarkable. This seems like a low bar, and one that obscures the range of diverse and innovative forms being developed in an online space, and being mostly ignored by the Academy.

The other caveat necessary when considering the impact of Netflix’s nominations is that its distinct mode of distribution would have been erased for many Emmy voters. Netflix sent out screener DVDs of both House of Cards and Arrested Development to Emmy voters, meaning they never had to confront their status as “internet television” as they sampled series submitted for consideration. Additionally, online screening options have been available from networks like FOX or NBC for a number of years, which means that more technologically savvy Emmy voters are already used to streaming television (thereby erasing the only significant sense of difference tied to the Netflix series). While we can read the narrative of the Emmys embracing online television based on the basic fact of their nominations, the actual process through which Netflix earned those nominations did not necessarily carry the same narrative.

Comparisons have been drawn between Netflix’s breakthrough and that of premium and basic cable channels, which are still establishing “firsts”: Louie, for instance, is the first basic cable comedy to earn a nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series. However, as the difference between forms of distribution continues to collapse—especially for Emmy voters who receive DVDs or online streams stripped of commercials—we are no longer in an era where distribution is in and of itself a stigma facing television programs that otherwise tick off the Emmy boxes. Rather, the Emmys are a battle between brands as individual networks and channels seek to associate themselves with the prestige necessary to earn an Emmy nomination. Netflix didn’t earn Emmy nominations by stressing its sense of difference, but rather by erasing that difference, developing series that matched contemporary, popular conceptions of what qualifies as television prestige.

It is hard for me to accept this as a bellwether moment for online television when Netflix’s success is based on their ability to disassociate themselves with the notion of online television. Their success was not in breaking down barriers for new forms of distribution, but in finding a way to successfully convince Emmy voters those barriers did not apply to them. For evidence of this, one need look no further than the official “Facts and Figures” document released by the TV Academy: despite all this discussion about online television, Netflix is categorized alongside AMC and HBO as a cable channel despite the existence of a broadband category, which is exactly what Netflix intended and the narrative we should be taking away from these nominations.

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4 Responses to “ Why Netflix is Not Emmy’s Online TV Vanguard ”

  1. Greeney28 on July 18, 2013 at 1:01 PM

    Thanks for this (very quick) contemplation of the Emmy nominations. Your point that Emmy voters are experiencing these programs in ways that eliminate the distinctions consumers experience is important, and I am so pleased you are taking this conversation in a different direction.

    Riffing off of you, I also wonder if Netflix deserves some of this attention because of its complete separation from the “other guys” in its business model. While its programs may resemble (and indeed derive from) traditional television outlets, it owes nothing to advertisers. It doesn’t live and die by ratings, and in fact refrains from sharing that data publicly (an annoyance, but one that nevertheless distinguishes the service).

    While you can compare Netflix to HBO, and there are many comparisons to behold, Netflix so far has remained independent of the cable industry, while HBO remains stubbornly committed to its marriage with MSOs.

    I’m not a Netflix fan, but I have been a longterm observer, hoping it can persist if only as a symbol of the possibility to produce and distribute television differently. My bar is low, too–slight difference (not being beholden to advertisers, for example) gives me some hope for greater change to come.

    In some ways, NOT being recognized by the Emmy’s may be a greater feather in the cap of a show/network trying to do something different. An Emmy nom connects Netflix to the old, boring, and mainstream. Meanwhile, FX, BBC America, and webseries like the delightful “Lizzie Bennet Diaries” can take comfort in avoiding the taint of the Emmy’s.

  2. Cynthia Meyers on July 19, 2013 at 11:07 AM

    Great points about the journalistic discourse about Netflix.

    Because the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is so conservative (as Faculty Seminar participants can confirm), doesn’t it seem logical it would grant its imprimatur to programs that fit existing conventions?

    Given that conservatism–and the longtime oh so vehement resistance to the evil internet–it may be that what is notable here is only that Academy members are finally feeling comfortable enough with a new platform to include it in its self-celebration. “Netflix is one of us!” The comparison to cable is evidence of that: the Academy eventually got used to cable, after much grousing, now it’s graciously accepting the next new kid on the block. And the first step in acceptance is rewarding what is familiar, not what is actually innovative, different, or challenging.

    Netflix’s canny wooing of the TV establishment is, to me, quite impressive as a business strategy. As a supporter of innovative program forms, yes, Netflix may indeed fall short, at least for now, but, hey, Emmy awards are great marketing tools, and more subs will lead to more shows, some of which may begin to fulfill the promises of new media. Someday!

  3. AJ Christian on July 19, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    Spot on, Myles. Netflix’s entire business strategy: use subscription revenue to license TV and movies then develop high-budget original programming after reaching critical mass, is taken directly from HBO. And, compared to Boardwalk Empire or Game of Thrones, I’m not — yet — convinced House of Cards even stands up in terms of conceptual ingenuity. Following Netflix’s success, Machinima is mulling the same model (http://www.tubefilter.com/2013/07/18/machinima-paid-subscription-service)

    In terms of business ingenuity, I’ve been surprised Netflix isn’t courting indie TV producers. For a much lower price, they could reach passionate niche audiences *and* tell stories in a way that’s truly different from legacy television. There are tens of thousands of people who’d appreciate Netflix supporting smaller players. But that’s not HBO and won’t get nominations in top Emmy categories. Netflix knows it’s better to be a cable channel than a web network these days.

    This continuity will cable you’ve identified explains how they were able to secure so many nominations so quickly. I’ve spoken with programmers of awards and festivals, and they tell me their older memberships/leaders need programming that looks like and is distributed similarly to (in terms of producing robust DVDs) television. Ultimately if networks with money like Netflix don’t push voters to expand their conceptions of television, we will just get cable on the internet.

  4. [...] Hemlock Grove (2 nominations) is a signal that online TV’s moment has finally arrived – Myles McNutt argues that “Netflix is not Emmy’s Online TV Vanguard” – it is a significant development in an industry that largely to this point has treated [...]