Despite a changed television landscape, the Emmys had a familiar feel
CHOOSING THE best shows on television has never been harder. Before 2000, fewer than 150 original scripted series aired in America every year. In 2019 there were nearly 550—a figure that excludes the hundreds of foreign imports which are easily available to, and popular with, American audiences.
This increase is primarily a reflection of the “streaming wars”, a battle for supremacy in online video that now includes old Hollywood stalwarts like the Walt Disney Company, upstart online video services such as Netflix and digital conglomerates including Amazon. In November Apple launched Apple TV+, while Disney released Disney+ and took control of Hulu (a joint venture between several Hollywood giants, Hulu was at one point America’s second-most-popular video-subscription site). In April Jeffrey Katzenberg, a former Disney executive, and Meg Whitman, the former CEO of HP and eBay, released their short-form streamer, Quibi. Later that month consumers were also able to sign up for Peacock from Comcast’s NBCUniversal, and in May AT&T’s WarnerMedia set up HBO Max in an effort to reposition the 47-year-old HBO for the digital-video era.
With the “war” under way, many expected a shake-up on September 20th at this year’s Emmy Awards, the authoritative awards body in the American TV industry. High-end scripted dramas and comedies are considered the greatest creative achievement in television and, according to Parrot Analytics, a data firm, are the most important factor for consumers looking to subscribe to a new video service. Each of the new services has invested in producing or acquiring such programmes. In addition, this year’s event was the first time in nine years that “Game of Thrones” and “Veep”, HBO’s heavy-hitters, were not up for awards. The drama and comedy pair won a total of seven top prizes (either Outstanding Drama Series or Outstanding Comedy Series) in their combined 15 seasons.
Yet the story told by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences this year was a familiar one: the more things change, the more things stay the same. Across the drama and comedy categories, Netflix and HBO held eight of the 16 nominations—a domination consistent with the preceding five-year average (see chart). Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, which have been releasing original series since 2012 and 2013 respectively, picked up a single nomination each. Apple had hoped its signature series, “The Morning Show”, which reportedly broke industry records for its production costs, would be recognised as an Outstanding Comedy series, but it received nods only in the acting and directing categories. Apple was otherwise shut out, as was Peacock.
HBO converted its nominations into awards. “Succession” won Outstanding Drama Series, HBO’s fifth triumph in the category over the past six years, as well as honours for lead actor (Jeremy Strong, pictured), writing and directing in a drama. “Schitt’s Creek”, from Pop, a cable network, dominated the comedy categories, winning the first “sweep” in Emmy history by clinching the four acting prizes as well as those for Outstanding Comedy Series, directing and writing. While this was Pop’s first major Emmy win, this victory reinforced existing market dynamics. “Schitt’s Creek” is an import from Canada; Pop serves as the programme’s pay-TV distributor in America while Netflix holds exclusive digital subscription rights. The streaming giant is credited with popularising the series—when accepting one of the awards Eugene Levy, the co-creator and star, said that “Netflix was the spark that seemed to set off everything”—and will reap much of the benefits of the win.
Yet the 72nd Emmy Awards did hint at industry changes to come. The nomination for Outstanding Drama of “The Mandalorian”, Disney+’s launch title and the first live-action “Star Wars” television series, confirmed the success of Disney’s recent focus on its existing intellectual property. According to Parrot Analytics, “The Mandalorian” was the third-most popular series of the Emmy season. Its recognition at the Emmys—though it did not take home the biggest accolades—surprised many industry insiders. In 2018 Disney had managed a similar feat with the first Best Picture nomination for a comic-book film at the Academy Awards with “Black Panther”. That was also the highest-grossing film of the year in America and the second-highest worldwide.
Disney is betting that TV spin-offs of its chart-topping films will bring it success in the streaming wars, even if it produces fewer series overall and targets a narrower audience than Netflix or Amazon. (Reed Hastings, Netflix’s co-CEO, recently acknowledged that the company had become its biggest rival.) Next month the second season of “The Mandalorian” will be released; Disney plans several spin-offs from its Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as more “Star Wars” series and an animated show by Pixar. These will find large audiences and may win critical acclaim, too. This year “Watchmen”, a limited series from HBO, showed that could be done by taking 11 Emmys across the creative and technical categories, the most of any show. It was the first time a programme adapted from a comic book had been victorious in a major category. It may not be the last.
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