The reaction to the 2013 Emmy nominations, announced Thursday morning, indicate that a good many television fans and critics are eager to permanently embrace a new, digital era of television consumption: The Emmy story dominating the headlines and social media chatter is the history-making nominations for Netflix original series -- 14 in total.
“House of Cards,” a menacing political drama that debuted in February, nabbed nine nominations, including Best Drama and Best Lead Actor (Kevin Spacey) and Actress (Robin Wright.) Jason Bateman earned a nomination for reprising his role in the canceled Fox favorite "Arrested Development" for a much-anticipated Netflix-produced extension of the series, which also earned nods for Best Editing and Best Original Score, while horror series "Hemlock Grove" received two technical nominations.
“House of Cards” developer and producer Beau Willimon appears to have seen the nominations as a sign that digitally distributed content is ready to compete with the traditional television medium of broadcast and cable networks.
“The TV academy embracing us in this way is sending a message: We believe in this new approach, and we welcome you to the party,” Willimon told the Wall Street Journal. “That’s a huge amount of validation for Netflix and for us working on the show.”
Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos was equally encouraged by the nominations, which Netflix had eagerly courted.
“Big change usually comes very slowly," Ted Sarandos told Vulture Thursday. "’House of Cards,’” the way it came together, releasing all the episodes at once … those are big changes. A single nomination in any category would have been a victory.”
But was it more of a victory for the medium than the shows and the talent? Given the relative proportion of Netflix nominations within the eligible field, it’s difficult – if tempting – to conclude that academy voters have bestowed a special blessing upon Netflix’s original programming.
"... It’s a little early to break out the champagne and toast the company as the next coming of HBO. Netflix earned more nominations than Starz (which only raked up three nods) but way fewer than Showtime and HBO, which earned 31 and 108 respectively," Forbes reporter Dorothy Pomerantz wrote. “…Netflix is basically being lauded for one good show while Showtime and HBO have deeper benches.'' "Arrested Development" scored only three nominations, fewer than any other year it was on the air.
“House of Cards” was nominated for an Emmy because the academy recognized that it’s a great show, and Jason Bateman because he’s a great actor – even if the Netflix reboot of “Arrested Development” was a disappointment. Netflix original series may be distributed through a non-traditional medium still finding its legs, but all told, the playing field may not be so uneven.
If you look at key variables working for and against a digital television series’ chances of landing high on the popular and critical radar, the potential risks and rewards of bypassing broadcast and cable distribution appear to nearly cancel each other out. Streaming content has the benefit of avoiding competition with established broadcast and cable series and popular televised events. As Laura Dern, who was nominated for a Lead Comedy Actress Emmy for her role as Amy Jellicoe in the now-canceled “Enlightened,” told Variety, “We knew people wouldn’t watch us live, when were up against shows like the Grammys or the Oscars or the Super Bowl.”
Still, an Internet-based series that is delivered in bulk will have a much harder time achieving the ritualistic cult followings enjoyed by shows like “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones.” For many viewers, a critical part of the viewing experience is sharing commentary in real time on social media and devouring myriad recaps and analyses delivered online by the next day. While Netflix's “Arrested Development” premiered to an expectation that eager fans would binge-watch on the day it was released (at least until they got bored), “House of Cards” relied on heavy promotion from Netflix and word-of-mouth endorsements from viewers. While the former has little to do with a show’s quality, the latter has everything to do with it.
Of course, if no one is watching the show in the first place, there’s no way to spread the word. In this sense, Netflix’s Emmy recognition should raise the profile of its original programming to a wider potential audience, giving it an opportunity to compete in the long-term with the television establishment -- assuming it keeps up the good work, and keeps enough of it coming.
As we have seen with AMC and FX, success breeds success -- if you keep producing. “Netflix is going to have to churn out more 'House of Cards'-level shows if it’s going to be a real player in the quality TV space,” Pomerantz wrote.