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Interestingly enough, the Primetime Emmys’ “changing of the guard” from the cable era to the streaming era has unfolded entirely over the course of the run of Netflix’s The Crown, the first season of which was Emmy-eligible in 2017 and the fourth and most recent season of which was Emmy-eligible this year.
In 2017, Hulu became the first streaming service to claim one of the big three series Emmys — drama, comedy or limited/anthology — when The Handmaid’s Tale was named best drama. Amazon carried forward the torch with its best comedy wins for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fleabag in 2018 and 2019, respectively. And on Sunday night, both Apple TV+, which launched less than two years ago, and Netflix, the most prominent streamer, joined the club as Apple’s Ted Lasso won best comedy (no streamer has ever won a series award in less time) and Netflix’s The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit won best drama and best limited/anthology series, respectively — an unprecedented clean sweep of the big three series awards for over-the-top media services.
Netflix, with a stunning 44 victories between the Primetime and Creative Arts ceremonies, finished alone in first place for most Emmy wins of the year for the first time ever (in 2018 it tied HBO, which has otherwise dominated the 21st century), and also tied the record — held solely by CBS for the last 47 years — for most Emmy wins in a single year. Just as notably, in every single performance, directing or writing category in which a Netflix show did not win on Sunday, the winner hailed from a fellow streamer — Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso and HBO Max’s Hacks split the comedy awards — or from HBO, which was buoyed by Mare of Easttown, Last Week Tonight and I May Destroy You. Disney+, for its part, won best variety special (pre-recorded) with Hamilton.
Think about that. CBS, as part of the traditional CBS/NBC/ABC/Fox rotation, had the privilege of broadcasting an Emmys telecast during which the Big Four broadcast networks collectively won just one award (best variety sketch series for NBC’s Saturday Night Live) and its own greatest reason to cheer were the sole wins for premium cable and basic cable, which went to networks that happen to share its parent company, Viacom: Showtime, which snagged best variety special live for Stephen Colbert’s Election Night 2020, and VH1, which claimed best competition series for RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Talk about airing one’s own funeral.
Nine years ago, not a single streaming show had ever been nominated for a Primetime Emmy. Now, not only the broadcast networks that dominated the Emmys for the 20th century and the first chunk of the 21st, but also the basic and premium cable networks that thrived at them during chunks of the 21st century (remember AMC with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, Comedy Central with The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report or Showtime with Homeland?) are all but forgotten on TV’s biggest night. How did this happen? And so quickly?
I would like to submit four maxims that I believe address these questions…
1) There is now more TV content than ever before, and more quality TV content than ever before, hence all of the talk about “Peak TV” … but most people, including TV Academy members, are not consuming more TV than they used to.
2) The “water cooler” has increasingly disappeared from our lives — but we still get a very similar sense of what our social circle is watching and liking through social media.
3) Most people are sheep and want to watch what everyone else in their social circle is talking about. For the country at large, those are a handful of shows on the broadcast networks and basic cable. For TV Academy members, those are increasingly edgier and higher-brow offerings that are available on a small handful of platforms.
4) Things have been trending in this direction for the last several years, but have been expedited by the pandemic. And this is how, at a time when there are some 500 scripted original series on TV, a mere six shows — The Crown, Ted Lasso, Hacks, Mare of Easttown, Last Week Tonight and The Queen’s Gambit — won virtually every major Primetime Emmy Award.
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