Emmys: How Netflix Edged HBO and What It Means for This Year's Race

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HBO's 'Game of Thrones' (left), Netflix's 'The Crown'

Advantage Netflix — though it still lacks a 'Game of Thrones' or 'Handmaid's Tale.'

Netflix’s volume game finally caught up with HBO in the Emmy race. Even though the latter, the TV Academy’s de facto darling for 18 years running, again has the most-nominated programs in Game of Thrones and Westworld, it is Netflix’s sheer abundance of lesser-nominated works that gave it the edge it needed, earning 112 Emmy nominations to HBO's 108 on Thursday and setting up a somewhat surprising narrative for this final leg of Emmy campaign season.

What is most interesting about the Netflix coup is that the tumult is not immediately apparent when you look at the Emmy nominations by series or category. The top players are, for the most part, a murderers’ row of familiar Emmy bait. Game of Thrones is again the leader with 22 mentions after missing a year of eligibility in 2017, only narrowly besting the network’s chosen successor Westworld (21). NBC's Saturday Night Live also only trailed Game of Thrones by one nomination, adding to its already record number of accolades over five decades. Hulu's 2017 breakout The Handmaid’s Tale upped its nomination tally to 20 this year, while Ryan Murphy’s latest American Crime Story on FX easily ranks as the most-nominated limited series with 18. FX’s Atlanta maintains an edge in comedy, joined by Amazon newcomer The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and HBO’s Barry. The Bill Hader comedy helped fill the HBO vacancy left by Veep, but not by much.

Notice how none of those series belong to Netflix. The streamer’s only submission to crack the top 10 was The Crown. It ranked ninth among all series, outshining both Stranger Things and GLOW. Where Netflix succeeded is also where HBO ostensibly failed — in limited series and original movies. Those two categories have long been a boon to the pay cabler, but its offerings there for 2018 were comparatively modest. Netflix, in contrast, had the miniseries Western Godless. That proved to be the most valuable limited series aside from Murphy’s American Crime Story, while HBO sits out the category entirely after a year where Big Little Lies all but swept. (This would be a much different conversation had recent breakout Sharp Objects premiered just two months earlier.) Among movies, HBO has the most projects with Fahrenheit 451, Paterno and The Tale. But all those nominations combined only narrowly edged Netflix’s Black Mirror effort USS Callister.

Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos sounded off on the streamer's victory in a statement, saying, “We are particularly enthused to see the breadth of our programming celebrated with nominations spread across 40 new and returning titles which showcase our varied and expansive slate — comedies, dramas, movies, limited series, documentary, variety, animation and reality.”

Sheer output and diversification were indeed key to Netflix’s 2018 ascendancy. Thank those deep pockets. Netflix's annual programming spend dwarfs all of its competitors'. And while there is no doubt plenty of back-patting and hand-shaking at the company’s Sunset Boulevard offices, it should not be forgotten that the streamer’s past volume hasn’t exactly done them any favors in terms of big wins. Netflix typically only gets a handful of wins on Emmy night and during the Creative Arts ceremony. The fact that it has yet to win for top drama or comedy was particularly underscored in 2017, when Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale emerged as the night’s drama darling.

Speaking of The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s flagship series fared even better during its second year of eligibility. The 2017 winner of five Emmys, including best drama and best actress for Elisabeth Moss, managed to up its Emmy nomination total from 13 to 20. Hulu has a lot to be glad about this year. Although it still distantly trails powerhouses Netflix, HBO, NBC and FX, Hulu improved its lot on the back of Handmaid’s Tale and, to a much lesser extent, The Looming Tower. Jeff Daniels, also mentioned in the supporting actor category for Godless, scored a nomination for lead in a limited series. (We’ll see how that one ages, by the way. A renewal for Looming Tower, one that would re-qualify it as a drama for future Emmys, is said to be imminent.)

If there is an heir to Handmaid’s Tale’s 2017 Emmy heat, it’s probably The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Amazon’s comedy from Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino has given the streamer its most nominations ever, littering the comedy categories with mentions for both series and breakout Rachel Brosnahan. (In a sign of how valuable Mrs. Maisel is, the comedy earned 14 of Amazon's 22 total noms.)

None of these numbers say much about the actual race, however. And it cannot be emphasized enough that 2018 is the first Emmy year in quite a long time where there’s almost no certainty in the top categories of best comedy and best drama.

For comedy, the absence of HBO's Veep leaves the race wide open. FX’s Atlanta is well-positioned, having won key awards for its first season. HBO likely has something of a split vote on its hands with Barry, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Silicon Valley. Netflix adds GLOW to the mix, joining perennial nominee Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. That makes Mrs. Maisel the real wild card. (ABC's Modern Family, long a guarantee, finally dropped out.)

Drama will very likely come down to Game of Thrones or Handmaid’s Tale. We’ll never know if the latter would have pulled off its big night in 2017 had Game of Thrones not sat that year out. And the prior two years proved that Game of Thrones was the Emmy voters’ favorite, a fact echoed by another year where it topped among all programs in nominations. Working in Handmaid’s Tale's favor, in addition to its continued timeliness in this heated political climate, is the fact that its sophomore run continued to be critically lauded — not an easy feat. There certainly exists a world where FX's The Americans gets a farewell nod, or Netflix's The Crown steals a win, or even NBC's This Is Us is honored for its contributions for broadcast, but that all seems unlikely. Netflix’s Stranger Things and HBO’s Westworld seem even less poised for a victory in this category, both eclipsed by their more Emmy-friendly platform siblings.

Nominations are certainly an honor, but shiny trophies don’t hurt. Who wins what when the Emmys take place on Sept. 17 will say a lot about where the balance of power really lies in TV’s ever-escalating war for viewers and prestige.