Imagine you’re a senior hosting a yearly end-of-summer luncheon with a bunch of your peers at your senior community. One year a group of much younger people rush into the party and help themselves to some of your food and drink. As a nice touch, invite them back next year, only this time they show up with more friends and consume a much larger share of your food and drink. You’re a little annoyed, but you invite her back. This time, they and more friends make off with practically all of your food and drink. And then you invite her back.
That wouldn’t make much sense, but it’s essentially what happened with the Emmys.
The ceremony was first presented in 1949 when television was in its infancy to celebrate shows in the Los Angeles area. In 1952, recognition of nationally televised work began. Three years later, the ceremony itself was televised nationally, and since 1995 it has been broadcast on a “rotation” that cycles between the big four major broadcast stations of today — stations available free of charge “over the air” that I will hereinafter refer to as the network – ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, an agreement last renewed for eight years in 2018.
For decades after the Emmys were reimagined in 1952, every nominee and winner was from a network (a classification that formerly included DuMont and now includes PBS and The CW) or was syndicated. Then, in 1988, cable programming was allowed—in the series categories, HBO was the first comedy nominee The Larry Sanders Show In 1993, HBO was nominated for First Drama The sopranos In 1999, HBO was the first comedy winner Sex and the City 2001 and first drama winner was The sopranos in 2004. And 20 years later, in 2008, streaming was invited to compete. Among his firsts: Drama nomination house of cards (Netflix) in 2013, Comedy Nomination Orange is the new black (Netflix) in 2014, Drama Winner The story of the maid (Hulu) in 2017 and Comedy Winner The wonderful Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime) in 2018.
In the era of “Peak TV” with more than 500 scripted shows released each year, TV Academy took the number of nominees for Best Drama and Best Comedy from five to six in 2008, seven in 2015, and eight increased in 2020. No, even that obscured the fact that network shows are a much smaller slice of the pie than they used to be, and also that they don’t appeal to Emmy voters the way they used to.
The last network show to win Best Drama was Fox’s 24 in 2006 and Best Comedy was ABC modern family in 2014. The last time more than one was nominated for Best Drama was in 2010 (CBS’ The good wife and ABC’s Lost) and for Best Comedy was 2017 (ABC’s Black and modern family). And since 2012, and many times since, not a single one has been among the top drama nominees.
But the networks have never just as badly done in the Emmy nominations as this year. The Big Four amassed a combined 86 nominations — 29 for CBS, 28 for NBC, 23 for ABC, and six for Fox — which is fewer than the individual totals from HBO/HBO Max (140) and Netflix (105). Also outperformed all networks: Hulu (58), Apple TV+ (52), Disney+ (34), and Amazon Prime (30).
Networks submitted just one of 16 drama or comedy nominees, ABC’s Rookie Comedy Abbott Elementary School (NBC’s drama This is us and ABC’s comedy Black dropped out of the top races after being nominated last year). It also snagged one of 24 spots for major drama or comedy acting and went on Abbott Elementary School Quinta Brunson for Comedy Leading Lady. None of the 14 drama or comedy directing spots went to a network show, and only one of 15 drama or comedy writing spots—again, Brunson.
Why is this happening? Unlike paid cable or streaming shows, TV shows continue to be packed with commercials, limited in what they can say or show, have long seasons that are slowly tapering off, and rarely tell ongoing stories (to improve their syndication prospects) . Not coincidentally, they are less popular with the Coastal Intelligence and the media, whose tweets and articles serve as a curatorial role for Emmy voters.
Last year, CBS aired an Emmys show where the networks only won an award for Best Variety Sketch Series for NBC’s Saturday night live, and for the first time, all three series awards have been won by streamers. Networks’ prospects at this year’s Emmys, which NBC will air on September 12, don’t look any better.
Which begs the question: Why do the stations want to air a three-hour commercial for their competition? (They were reportedly very unlucky years ago when only the TV movie and miniseries categories were swamped by cable; now network shows in virtually every genre except variations make up a minority of slots.) My guess is that they don’t and don’t The wheel rotation will resume after its expiration in 2026, unless some major changes occur – perhaps the introduction of Best Network Drama and Best Network Comedy categories. (There are already hundreds of Emmy categories, so what’s two more?)
And whether the networks — or TV Academy — make such demands, I would expect others to bid on the Emmys, too. HBO reportedly made an offer in 2002, but it was turned down. I doubt his interest has waned or that any streamer wouldn’t want to join in too. If either of them ends up with the Emmys, well, to go back to the analogy we started with, the kids really ate the seniors’ lunch.
This story first appeared in the July 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to login.