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Netflix Storms The Emmy Nominations, But How Much Has Really Changed?

<em>House Of Cards</em>, starring Kevin Spacey, received nine Emmy nominations this morning.
Melinda Sue Gordon
House Of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, received nine Emmy nominations this morning.

Even a year ago, the original programming on internet outlets like Netflix and Hulu was an asterisk. We all knew Netflix would be premiering House Of Cards starring Kevin Spacey this spring, and Arrested Development a bit later, and that there were other projects coming. But it all seemed a little abstract, like not-quite-television, like maybe it would feel more like ... renting movies?

But Thursday morning, Netflix earned nine nominations for the drama House Of Cards — including the prestigious Outstanding Drama Series category — and three more for Arrested Development, and even two for the much lower profile Hemlock Grove. They are on their way. It's early, but they're on their way.

They're still no HBO — that premium cable awards hog took 108 nominations. They're not even AMC, which took 26. But they are there, on the list of networks, with HBO and AMC and FX, and they have one more Outstanding Drama Series nomination than ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC combined.

There are a few caveats to keep in mind. Reaching Emmy voters is as much about sending screeners on DVD as it is penetrating their consciousness the rest of the time. And if recognition of online-first shows is a new thing for the Emmys, sucking up to movie people is a very old thing for the Emmys — so the fact that people paid a lot of attention to a David Fincher project starring Spacey is almost as much a nostalgia act as it is a brave new frontier.

Still, cable television didn't get an Outstanding Drama Series nomination at all until The Sopranos was nominated in 1999. And commercial broadcast television — that is, CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox — got what was, as of right now, its last Outstanding Drama Series nomination in 2011. It took less than 15 years for cable (and now the Internet) to displace broadcast, at least for the time being, from the biggest award of the night.

Broadcast doesn't show up in the Outstanding Miniseries Or Movie category either. In addition to the competition from cable standard-bearers like HBO, there are new elbows in the scrum all the time, this year including the Sundance Channel, a previously low-profile network that was nominated twice for Restless and eight times for the Elisabeth Moss-led Top Of The Lake.

Moreover, some of the activity on television comes from some of our most celebrated film directors. While prestige cable has a long history as an outlet for the quirky "Difficult Men" of Brett Martin's recent book, cable and online distribution has also matured into an entirely respectable option for people like Fincher, and Jane Campion (who did Top Of The Lake for Sundance), and Steven Soderbergh (who did Behind The Candelabra for HBO, a film that would have seemed perfectly natural as an Oscar-winning theatrical release).

TV series now screen at film festivals. Some are never on TV. Movies that seem like they belong at the Oscars wind up at the Emmys. Oscars go to films that were mostly seen at home on demand. Film actors quit movies to do television. The question to an actor, "Why would you choose to lower yourself to television when you're so successful?" has become quaint and out of touch.

Don't misunderstand — the Emmys can still be infuriating and nonsensical in all of their old-fashioned ways. New Girl was a so-so show in its first season and received a few nominations. It was a very good show this year and received none. As cable ramps up the serious, ponderous, dark drama, Kerry Washington was nominated for her lead performance in the over-the-top Scandal, which borders on camp. That's not necessarily a bad nomination, exactly, given how strangely addicting Scandal is, but it's interesting that of all the populist pieces the Emmys could have chosen, they went with that one and ignored a lot of others.

But it's all being slowly drawn down the sides of the same mixing bowl, I think, to the point where these lines between Internet and theatrical release and television will become far less important. Brands will be brands, on television and in theaters and on your tablet. Acting will be acting, writing will be writing, and people will write about which dramas you should watch on your television and which need to be seen in theaters based on considerations other than timing.

And perhaps the Emmy Awards will themselves be a relic.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.

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