Sunday will be TV’s biggest night, with formally attired celebrities ambling through the familiar red-carpet gantlet at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards.
But this won’t be the same old Emmys. After years of complaints of staid and predictable voting, the Emmys have finally caught up with the changes shaking up the TV business.
“Transparent” is Exhibit A.
An offbeat comedy about a middle-aged dad (Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out as transgender to his adult kids, “Transparent” has a premise that could risk alienating the traditional-minded, even in a year when Caitlyn Jenner captured headlines.
FULL COVERAGE: Emmys 2015
In fact, it’s not a traditional TV series in any sense, as it bypasses the typical broadcast or cable platforms and is made and distributed on-demand by Amazon, the same online mega-retailer that ships books, diapers and countless other products.
And yet “Transparent” is also one of this year’s most-nominated shows, with 11 total nods and, in a formidable new versus old match-up, is squaring off against perennial winner “Modern Family” for best comedy.
The ABC sitcom has triumphed at the awards show for the last five years, and another victory would set a new record in the category. But within the industry, there is a sense that the creative momentum has shifted to more off-beat, unusual shows — including the kind of shows proliferating on streaming outlets such as Amazon and Netflix.
“Audiences are still much larger for network-originated shows, but the shows on streaming services have the attention of the entertainment establishment,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University. “Non-network shows can be edgier, bawdier and take more risks than the major networks can, and the Emmy people want to reward that.
“This is in some ways a socio-cultural statement, but it is also a statement about where the creative world wants to take the video industry,” he added.
Many experts see a growing two-tier system, much like the one that operates in the movie business, where Oscars are more likely to go to art house favorites than summer blockbusters. Michael Keaton’s “Birdman,” this year’s best picture winner at the Oscars, grossed about $42 million at the U.S. box office. Meanwhile, “American Sniper” took in $350 million, followed by “Hunger Games: Mockingjay” at $337 million.
“When you look at the Emmys, they’re no longer about what the popular masses like,” said Billie Gold, vice president and director of TV programming research at ad firm Carat. “It’s more about if you have top actors doing these really interesting roles, with multi-dimensional characters. … [With] mainstream television, you’re trying to appeal to the masses.”
When commercial TV consisted of just three broadcast networks, the Emmys often honored what was considered not just good but popular. “All in the Family,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Cheers,” “Seinfeld” and “Frasier” were honored with top Emmys. And they were huge hits in the ratings as well.
Occasionally, Emmy voters would nurture an arty, anti-populist bent. Back in the 1970s, for example, the best drama prize went three times to “Upstairs, Downstairs,” a BBC period piece about aristocrats and their servants that ran in the U.S. on PBS. As the “Downton Abbey” of its time, “Upstairs, Downstairs” was not nearly as well-liked as the cop shows it aired against, such as “Baretta” and “Starsky & Hutch.”
In 1981, a surprise win for the NBC cop drama “Hill Street Blues” — which had been languishing in the ratings but was considered one of the best-written shows on TV — rescued the show and helped turn it into a hit.
But over the last decade, as broadcast fortunes have ebbed and other providers have leaped in, the Emmys have reflected the trend.
In 2001, HBO’s urban romp “Sex and the City” became the first cable series to win the top comedy Emmy; three years later, HBO’s New Jersey mob epic “The Sopranos” set a milestone with the first best drama Emmy for a cable network. HBO is a premium network that the majority of Americans do not even subscribe to, although “Sopranos” delivered ratings that would today be the envy of ABC, CBS or NBC.
The victory for “Sopranos” cleared the path for AMC’s ad-agency period drama “Mad Men,” which took the top Emmy for four years in a row despite small audiences watching in real-time.
“‘Mad Men’s’ ratings, I hate to say, were not very good,” Carat’s Gold said. “There were lucky if they got 2 million viewers an episode. … But people, especially those in the media, love that show.”
Once the industry accepted the idea of giving top honors to what were essentially niche programs, the streaming players were ripe for consideration, despite the fact that no one outside the companies has any reliable data on viewership.
Netflix, Amazon and Hulu viewing figures are not widely published, but Nielsen this year has ramped up a pilot program that is designed to capture tallies of people watching streamed shows. However, Netflix has argued that the figures are flawed because they do not count people who watch on phones and tablets.
“Orange Is the New Black” is a case in point. A dark comedy set in a women’s prison, the Netflix show has generated enormous media coverage and a dedicated fan base, not to mention a nomination last year in the best comedy category — and another this year for best drama. (The series switched categories after a recent Emmy rule change addressed the blurring lines between complex dramas and comedies.)
But exactly how large that fan base is, at the moment, impossible to gauge.
“We don’t really know what the numbers are,” Gold said. “Netflix can tell us some numbers, but we don’t know if it’s substantiated. The thing is, if they get 2 to 3 million viewers, that’s huge for them, but it wouldn’t be a hit on network television.”
But experts expect that niche shows will continue to dominate come Emmy time as the industry slides away from a scheduled broadcast model in favor of streamed programs that can be viewed whenever users want.
One such show that won over Emmy voters is Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” which snagged seven nominations including one for best comedy series. The Tina Fey-produced comedy about a young woman who moves to New York after escaping from a cult was originally developed for NBC but wound up on the streaming service, where it premiered to acclaim.
“We are moving toward a video-on-demand environment,” said Brad Adgate, analyst for New York ad firm Horizon Media. “It’s begun already with younger adults and will grow toward viewers in their late 30s and 40s this season.”
As more Americans subscribe to streaming services, the companies continue to ramp up production with the river of revenue. About 43% of U.S. households get Netflix, while 42% have HBO.
“That means people are interested in that [Netflix] content and are actually paying $8.99 a month to get it,” said Gold.
Netflix and Amazon both recently announced plans to step up original programming, effectively making them direct competitors with major Hollywood studios such as Warner Bros. and Fox.
All that could mean a “Transparent” future.
Released by Amazon last year, “Transparent” won praise from critics if not necessarily much attention from ordinary viewers. But the show’s profile rose earlier this year as the Jenner gender transition grabbed headlines and sparked national curiosity.
From that standpoint, streaming providers may have only scratched the surface in terms of what can be dramatized for a TV series. And this year’s Emmys prove that top industry acclaim can follow, no matter how limited the audience.
“They’re looking for really hard-hitting social issues … pushing the envelope,” Gold said. “And that attracts a certain kind of viewer.”