Over the weekend, the New York Times acquired a recording of John Stankey, the AT&T executive overseeing the newly acquired Time Warner, now Warner Media, speaking to the staff of HBO about the year to come. He told the employees that it would be a hard year, and he wanted the company to get “bigger and broader.” He said, “We need hours a day. It’s not hours a week, and it’s not hours a month. We need hours a day. You are competing with devices that sit in people’s hands that capture their attention every 15 minutes.” Stankey did not mention Netflix by name, but the company loomed over his remarks: HBO needs to be more like Netflix, a neat reversal of Netflix’s proclamation, years ago, that it needed to be more like HBO.
Then, Thursday morning, the Emmy nominations were announced, and for the first time ever, Netflix received the most, 112 to HBO’s 108. HBO had led all networks in Emmy nominations for the past 18 years. The Emmys (and, by the way, I think the Emmys should be taken about as seriously as a rock-skipping contest; call me a snob!) are a major metric of prestige, a leading arbiter of acclaim. Netflix’s “throw billions of dollars’ worth of shows at our viewers and sees what sticks” style—which results in some truly mediocre shows HBO would never air, lots of perfectly watchable shows HBO might air, and a handful of very good ones—has now generated more nominations than HBO’s careful, thoughtful, slow production process.
This accomplishment seems to support Stankey’s point. Just by virtue of making so much more television—more than 70 new series during the eligibility period, when HBO aired about 20 new and returning shows in the same time frame—Netflix managed to topple HBO from the position it had held for the past 18 years. Forget hours: to stay ahead in the prestige game, HBO’s bread and butter, it would seem to have to make more series to keep up.
But there’s another way to look at these numbers. HBO still has way more nominations per show than Netflix does: Of the 10 shows with the most nominations, HBO had three; FX had two; Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix each had one, which is another way of saying that Netflix got the most nominations because it had the most shows, not the best ones. (Netflix and HBO do both have two contenders in the Best Drama category. HBO has three in the Best Comedy category, to Netflix’s two, though one of HBO’s three is Curb Your Enthusiasm, for a not-good season.)
And then there’s the historical view: For many, many decades the Emmys were an ode to the status quo in which the networks dominated— and this was even after TV had started to be, generally speaking, more than mediocre. HBO’s Emmy dominance stretches back to 2000, the dawn of the “golden age of TV” and The Sopranos, but even that “dominance” couldn’t get HBO a single nomination for The Wire. For all its claims to reinventing the way people watch, Netflix, in so many ways, is like a network. It’s a service that tries to appeal to everyone, one that you never have to leave as long as you’re happy watching something that is perfectly fine—thus Jason Bateman’s nomination for Netflix’s Ozark, aka male Emmy voter comfort food.
Of course, Netflix has some good shows, including my beloved GLOW. But the network’s Emmy dominance is a reflection of volume, and an emerging status quo. There’s so much good stuff that some will be recognized—yay, Atlanta, Betty Gilpin, and Sandra Oh! And there’s so much good stuff that it can’t all be recognized—boo, where’s Halt and Catch Fire and a million other things? Amid this overkill, you begin to see Emmy voters doing what they have to: glomming on to the stuff they can actually remember aired this year, however good (or bad) it is—The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, This Is Us—and using brands like HBO, Netflix, and FX to look for contenders. Unlike Netflix and the networks, HBO and FX aren’t trying to appeal to everyone, but in terms of reliably attracting attention for their series, they too are the new networks. Meanwhile, ABC’s Modern Family finally wasn’t nominated for Best Comedy this year. Netflix airs more OK shows than any platform in history. Its Emmy dominance doesn’t mean more than that, but it’s also not going to end anytime soon.