Emmys: Broadcast Networks Could Be Shut Out of Comedy Series Race

As edgier premium cable and streaming shows continue to dominate the nominations, is there any room for a Big Four series to snag a slot?
Illustration by: Mario Zucca

In August, television's Big Four broadcast networks struck a deal with the TV Academy to continue to exclusively air the Emmys in rotation for another eight years, just as they have done since 1995. This was baffling to me, since I see it as tantamount to ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox airing their own funeral, or at least promoting their competition, as with each passing year there are fewer network shows among the awards nominees.

A network drama hasn't won since 24 did in 2006, and these days, the only one that even has a chance of being nominated is NBC's This Is Us, which became the first in six years to earn a nom in 2017. (It did so again in 2018.)

As for network comedies? The situation is even bleaker. The entire comedy series category was composed of network shows as recently as eight years ago, and one prevailed five years ago when ABC's Modern Family won for a record-tying fifth straight year — but things have fallen off dramatically since then. In 2018, of the eight nominees, the networks' only representative was ABC's Black-ish. And this year could be the first in which no network comedy is nominated.

What changed? The networks, which were essentially the only game in town until cable took off in the '80s (the first non-network comedy series nominee was HBO's The Larry Sanders Show in 1993), still have the largest built-in audience on TV — they're free, after all — but have become less desirable places for top comedy talent to work.

Premium cable and streamers are less risk-averse. Their shows don't have to be as unobjectionable as possible in order to retain the largest audience, the better to generate the greatest revenue through commercials; in fact, these outlets often prefer shows that target narrower demographics, since those people may become subscribers. Moreover, their shows can say and show anything, rather than be neutered by standards and practices; can tell a story without constant interruption, which requires constant re-exposition; and can offer progressive stories, rather than requiring each episode to stand on its own so as to be marketable for eventual syndication. Thus, edgier people, including Emmy voters, tend to prefer them.

Premium cable and streaming shows also are not bound by networks' confining traditions. Netflix, for instance, orders shows straight to series, which TV creators find hugely appealing because it enables them to avoid making a pilot and then having to wait to see if it gets picked up. Moreover, they can shoot episodes of varying run times and quantities per season. Last year's best comedy winner, Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, aired eight episodes; the shortest network series in contention was probably NBC's The Good Place, which aired 13. Most air 20-plus. An economically made comedy is almost always tighter and more satisfying.

Furthermore, the times they are a-changin'. In a world before DVRs and on-demand viewing, people tuned in en masse to the same things, such as NBC's "Must-See TV" Thursday night lineup. Now, few viewers even know what day a network show airs. The closest approximation of that buzz is when a new season of a show, usually with fewer than a dozen episodes, drops in its entirety on a streamer. In the Peak TV era, viewers prefer shows that they can binge — so they can move on to the next buzzy series.

The aforementioned reasons undoubtedly contributed to an exodus from network TV — not just by actors, but by creators (e.g., Chuck Lorre, J.J. Abrams, Kenya Barris), execs (Channing Dungey, who went from ABC to Netflix) and shows (Arrested Development, once on Fox, resurfaced on Netflix). But you'd better believe that big paydays — nine figures, in some cases — were factors, as well.

People shouldn't be dismissive of network comedies — they just play by different rules. Without CBS' Everybody Loves Raymond, there might have been no Mrs. Maisel. Without Black-ish, there might have been no Atlanta. And without Modern Family, there might have been no Orange Is the New Black or Transparent. That said, because of the latter titles, many viewers — and voters — have changed the channel, preferring to get their laughs elsewhere.

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.