Why Netflix is Not Emmy’s Online TV Vanguard
Every 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 Development—House 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.