Will Streaming Media Really Affect Emmy Voters?

Paula Bernstein is an AwardsLine contributor.

When House of Cards debuted on the streaming service Netflix in February, the series’ awards-laden cast and crew, high production values, and cinematic storylines worked awards prognosticators into a frenzy. Could the 13-episode series be the first nonbroadcast, noncable series to break through at the Emmys?
If House of Cards, its exec producer-director David Fincher, or its stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are nominated for an Emmy in a major category, it will represent a watershed moment for the television industry and a sign of things to come—when digital shows go head-to-head with broadcast and cable programs 
for Emmy Awards.
But while House of Cards represents a revolution in terms of how viewers consume programming, one indisputable fact remains: Emmy voters watch eligible series on DVD. In some ways, the old-media format of “For Your Consideration” DVD screeners might be the great equalizer for new streaming media.
As far as audiences are concerned—especially younger ones weaned on the Internet—there is no difference between shows that are streamed and cable and broadcast programs. A good show is a good show, whether it’s on broadcast, cable or the Internet. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences doesn’t see a distinction either—at least not since 2008 when a rule change expanded the Emmy eligibility requirements to include broadband programs. (However, no digital program has ever been nominated, aside from a handful of nominations and wins in the short-form and interactive categories.)

Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey play a scheming couple in House of Cards.
Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey play a scheming couple in House of Cards.

“For the TV Academy, the platform origination is secondary to the content in terms of our competition. They might be coming in the room through different doors, but once they come into the room, they’re all in the same category,” says John Leverence, the TV Academy’s senior vp of awards. “The content, rather than the delivery mode, is what counts.”
Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, has said that he doesn’t operate within the traditional Hollywood system—he doesn’t release ratings, doesn’t always require pilots, launches all episodes of a season at the same time, and allots movie-size budgets for television series. But when it comes to the Emmys, even Netflix has to send out screeners. Which begs the question: Even though streaming services are changing the rules of the game when it comes to creating quality programming, does it matter when voters generally view all of the shows—broadcast, cable and streaming—on DVD?
“Content is content. You don’t judge a show differently if you watch it on a 13-inch TV or 32-inch TV. It’s just a different way of getting it. When screeners go out, people watch it on DVD,” says House of Cards executive producer Dana Brunetti. “You’re supposed to be judging the content, not the way you view it.”
Intent on showing the industry that it didn’t have to play by the same rules, Netflix was, at one point, unsure of whether or not it would send DVDs  to voters. Wouldn’t that be sending mixed messages to the industry?
Nevertheless, when the streaming company eventually chose to send out mailers to Emmy voters, they gave TV Academy members two methods in which to watch and consider House of Cards and Arrested Development. In the House of Cards mailer, they provided a unique code that allows ATAS members to access Netflix and stream the series through the voting period. But, realizing that not all members are comfortable with technology, they also sent out the old-fashioned DVD screeners. “Leading up to nominations, we felt it was important to give viewers and voters different ways in which to watch—so they could pick what they preferred,” says Sarandos.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the question of how to reach voters with a new technology has arisen. Not so long ago, cable was the new kid on the block at the Emmys. Back in 1988, when the TV Academy first allowed cable networks to compete in the Primetime Emmy Awards, broadcast networks griped about the new edgier competition, which didn’t have to follow the same guidelines as network television—there were fewer content restrictions and fewer hours of programming to produce.

Portia de Rossi on the set of the newly resurrected comedy Arrested Development.
Portia de Rossi on the set of the newly resurrected comedy Arrested Development.

It took another five years for a cable network to win its first major award (HBO’s Stalin and Barbarians at the Gate tied for outstanding made-for-television movie).
In recent years, cable networks have largely dominated the major Emmy categories—particularly drama series—with critically acclaimed shows such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Homeland, among many others. What was once considered edgy fare is now mainstream.
Now cable networks are the ones facing upstart competition in the form of digital programmers, such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other online companies investing in original series—and some cable execs are leveling the same complaints against streaming services that the broadcasters lobbed at them: They’re playing by a different set of rules.
But whether or not it takes streaming series as long as it took cable to break through at the Emmys is anyone’s guess. “Internet became eligible in 2008,” Leverence says. “Five years later, we have House of Cards. The rampup period could be similar.”
In addition to House of Cards and Arrested Development, Netflix has a full slate of programs in production and development, including the horror-thriller Hemlock Grove; Orange Is the New Black, based on the book of the same name; Derek from Ricky Gervais; and Lilyhammer, which will return for its second season in the fall.
Amazon let viewers decide which of its 14 pilots would be picked up, ultimately settling on six that were announced in May, and Hulu is producing original series, the first of which is set to debut this summer. YouTube is also a potential contender.
“In the future, I think a large portion of the nominees will come from different methods of distribution, simply because there will be more content distributed,” says Brunetti. “It’s simple math.”

Some broadcast and cable executives grouse about the fact that the press gives undue attention to digital shows like House of Cards because they’re a novelty. “When you hear people talking about it, they are talking about the platform and the mode of delivery rather than the quality,” says one veteran cable executive.
Interestingly, Sarandos points out that most of the people who watched House of Cards watched on their TVs, rather than their mobile devices or laptops. “I hope our content is judged at the same high level as anything on television, regardless of how it gets to the television,” he says.
And not all executives see the digital influx as a threat. “It took a long time for cable shows to get the recognition from the TV Academy. It would be a little bit disingenuous to complain about allowing these streaming guys to allow their best programming to be considered,” says Robert DeBitetto, president of brand strategy and business development at A&E Studios.
The nomination process still slightly favors broadcast and cable over streaming because those shows are more easily accessible to viewers—you just turn on the TV to see it.
“We tell people to vote for those shows you have seen and feel are worthy of nominations. So with a show that has 18 to 20 million people watching a week, there’s a statistical advantage since you may have a larger pool of potential voters,” explains Leverence.
But when screeners go out to members of the TV Academy, everyone judges the shows on the DVD they receive in the mail.
“It’s the great leveler of the screeners,” Leverence explains. “We tell people to respond to what they receive in the package.”
Regardless, streaming content is changing the Emmys, says Chris Long, senior vp of entertainment at DirecTV. “If you create content that is compelling, it should be allowed in,” says Long. “More content means more competition, which raises the quality of content. The more, the merrier!”
Besides, broadcast and cable networks are streaming more and more content as well, so the distinction between broadcast, cable and digital will continue to blur. “I think we are past segmenting shows by the way in which they are delivered to the TV,” says Sarandos. “If we are fortunate enough to have a show nominated or—knock on wood—win, it would be a great symbol of relevance for the distribution model,” says Sarandos.

What’s the Value of Winning an Emmy?

Ray Richmond is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 12 issue of AwardsLine.
When Homeland took home the three biggest drama series honors at last year’s Emmy Awards—for top drama as well as lead actor (Damian Lewis) and actress (Claire Danes)—it proved a watershed moment for Showtime after a couple of decades spent laboring in the awards-night shadow of HBO. “It meant that we had a claim on excellence,” confirms David Nevins, Showtime’s president of entertainment. “I mean, it’s always nice to be invited to the party. And for one night, it’s also nice to be king.”
But what does being king really mean in the Emmy context? It’s a question that has often been asked and perhaps never definitively answered. In the eight months since the Homeland gold rush, Nevins says that Showtime’s subscriber base has continued to grow, and the network’s credibility with the Hollywood creative community continues to soar. The win also helped raise Homeland’s profile during its second season, with Nevins noting that its viewership rose 25% year over year and grew to become the highest-rated series Showtime has ever had. “It’s made us a place to bring your best projects and best actors,” he finds. “It’s told the acting community that Showtime is where you can go to win awards and augment your career—even if you’re an established film actor.”
But in truth, the tangible impact of the Emmy triumphs is best measured over the long haul, Nevins believes. “It’s more of a slow-and-steady, building-of-the-brand thing rather than overnight,” he says. “We’re still hoping that the momentum halo from the wins spreads through the rest of our schedule.”
To a film or individual, the value of winning an Oscar, or even just earning an Oscar nomination, is generally undisputed. More often than not, it’s a career-maker that elevates one into rarefied air that typically translates into money at the boxoffice and beyond. The value of an Emmy Award? Not quite so clear. It affixes a seal of quality onto a person or project, to be sure. But that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a bounce beyond Emmy Night itself.
Consider the case of Arrested Development, which returned May 26 with 15 brand new episodes on Netflix, but enjoyed a woefully short life on Fox in the decade before. It was the toast of the industry in winning five Emmys in 2004, including for outstanding comedy series. But the honors did little to boost the show’s ratings, and it was gone by 2006.
Actor Alec Baldwin from the TV show "30Then there is the example of NBC’s 30 Rock. Like Arrested Development, it won numerous Emmys its first season, including for top comedy. And it too found that Emmys don’t necessarily translate into viewership, retaining a small cult following rather than a mass one. Yet the Tina Fey-Alec Baldwin comedy just left the air this year on its own terms after seven seasons. One of the show’s exec producers and showrunners, Robert Carlock, believes, “That first Emmy might have kept us on the air for seven years. I have to think that it definitely made it harder for NBC to cancel us.”
It also couldn’t have hurt that NBC didn’t have many ratings juggernauts on its schedule during those years, or that 30 Rock would go on to earn 14 Emmy statuettes in its first three years (including three straight best comedy series honors). “All of those Emmys, for the show and for Tina and for Alec, certainly helped make it a signature show for NBC,” agrees Richard Licata, the network’s exec vp of communications and a veteran of Emmy campaigns going back a quarter-century.
Licata doesn’t necessarily think it’s so much the winning as the campaigning for Emmys that ultimately bears the greatest value, as he has found in mounting campaigns for HBO, Fox, FX, Showtime and NBC over the years. “The campaigning itself is a great branding opportunity for a network or for an actor,” Licata says. “I think as the TV landscape becomes so voluminous, it has great value in casting a spotlight. And then when you win, as a performer, it certainly translates into thousands of new Twitter and Instagram and Facebook followers.”
The significance of Emmy attention on a cable network’s embryonic original production output likewise can’t be minimized, Licata explains. He was helping out on the campaign for The Shield back in 2002, in the early days of FX’s foray into homegrown drama programming. When star Michael Chiklis won that year for lead actor in a drama, Licata remembers, “It really put FX on the map and served notice that it was in the game. The same went for USA Network when Tony Shalhoub won for Monk. The Emmy attention itself helps turn series into signature shows.”
Charlie Collier, president and general manager at AMC, has witnessed the phenomenon firsthand. His network was mostly populated by theatrical acquisitions until it ramped up its original series production, gaining immediate Emmy traction beginning in 2008 with the likes of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Killing and The Walking Dead. The goal from the beginning, he says, was to “create iconic series that could stand side by side with some of the greatest films of all time.”

Breaking Bad’s acting Emmy wins helped establish AMC as a place for viewers to find groundbreaking storytelling.
Breaking Bad’s acting Emmy wins helped establish AMC as a place for viewers to find groundbreaking storytelling.

All of the Emmy attention that AMC’s series has received—including four straight top drama series wins for Mad Men and a combined five triumphs for Breaking Bad regulars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul—has been “great for our brand in a number of ways,” Collier confirms. “It’s been a real calling card with the creative community. They’ve seen that we’ll invest in projects of quality and take creative risks in terms of storytelling and casting. The Emmys have done a lot to draw attention to that.”
Few series in Emmy history have generated more nominations for a more diverse number of performers than has NBC’s Law & Order: SVU in its first 13 seasons of eligibility. It has earned noms for 18 different performers, from leads Mariska Hargitay and Christopher Meloni to a rich roster of guest stars including Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, Angela Lansbury and Marcia Gay Harden—plus wins for Hargitay (2006), Amanda Plummer (2005), Leslie Caron (2007), Cynthia Nixon (2008), Ellen Burstyn (2009) and Ann-Margret (2010). If it was stunt-casting designed to get Emmys, it worked.
But longtime Law & Order: SVU exec producer Neal Baer, who is now heading up the CBS summertime drama Under the Dome that premieres June 24, believes that the show’s Emmy attention that began with a nomination for Hargitay in 2004 was responsible in part for attracting big-name guest stars to SVU. “I think it was kind of a pronouncement that we did something right,” Baer maintains. “Once word got around that we were this Emmy-quality show, we started to have access to the best stars around. We got a lot of people who won’t typically do TV. And I think it was all of the Emmy buzz we got on ER that led to a movie star like Sally Field to do our show.”
While it’s difficult to find a direct link between winning an Emmy and financial gain for an individual, it’s perhaps easier to assess a win’s impact on a series. If an Emmy helps a series to stay on the air, it leads to packaging and releasing full-season DVDs. “And the longer a series stays on the air,” Licata points out, “the longer you can package DVDs and make that money. It also helps lead to international sales.”
Of course, writers or performers involved in an Emmy victory don’t necessarily see a lot of that money. Cary Hoffman is a personal manager for two clients who have won Emmys: Mike Royce, who earned a pair of trophies (in 2003 and 2005) as producer on Everybody Loves Raymond; and Rules of Engagement creator Tom Hertz, who won as a member of the writing staff of Dennis Miller Live in 1996. “The Emmy is definitely worth more to a show than it is to the individual,” Hoffman finds. “The network or studio can bill something going forward as ‘an Emmy-winning show.’ But I’m not sure it carries the same weight to be an ‘Emmy-winning writer’ or ‘Emmy-winning producer.’”
But the value of an Emmy is often more about building overall brand cachet rather than quantifiable return. One documentary producer who has worked with HBO stresses that the network uses its doc unit specifically for brand support “because it’s not a profit center.”
Yet even if a series tanks after receiving so much Emmy love, as Arrested Development did, perhaps the show wouldn’t have been reborn this year on Netflix had the awards not helped draw attention its way nine years ago. As one writer observes, “A lot of great shows simply disappear because the audience didn’t embrace them. So maybe all of those Emmys helped to buy Arrested Development one improbable rebirth. That, and of course all of the rabid fans who have never been able to let the show go.”

Emmys Q&A: Mitch Hurwitz

Paul Brownfield is an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 12 issue of AwardsLine.

On May 26 at 12:01 a.m., 15 new episodes of Arrested Development went live on Netflix; probably, by 5 a.m., the series’ legions of fans had exhausted the new supply. The cancellation of Arrested by Fox in 2006, after two seasons, prompted an afterlife of rumors and almost-announcements, as series creator Mitch Hurwitz worked on a feature script of his cult series. Like the fans, Hurwitz didn’t want to let go of his extended band of crazies, the Bluths, either. And then Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, suggested resurrecting the show to Imagine Entertainment’s Ron Howard. “And Ron said, ‘That’s a very nice thought, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen,’” Hurwitz explains. Except it did happen.

How different was the process in working with Netflix?
I wasn’t turning scripts in, because of the nature of the thing. We weren’t shooting one a week. We’d shoot pieces of eight different episodes in any given week. We were shooting 12, 14 pages a day, shooting like crazy.  We screened it at the premiere—it was the first time an audience had seen it, but it was also the first time I’d seen two (episodes) in a row. I’d just been making them and putting them in the pipeline. And I guess that’s the case usually with television. The difference with this one, though, is that it’s all coming out on the same day.  And it will be viewed by some as an eight-hour movie.

Would you have preferred that Netflix do a more gradual roll-out?
I was kind of advocating for a while, how about five a week? And they said, “No, our brand is, we don’t want to chase the traditional things. We don’t chase opening weekends. We want to provide content when people want it, how they want it. We’re a supermarket, not a restaurant.” They didn’t say that, but it’s kind of like that, you know?

Do you care how the episodes are viewed, whether in one sitting or not?
The one thing I really, really, really care about, and it’s just for (the fans’) enjoyment, is that they have to be watched in order. A lot of press got out saying, “Oh, you can watch them in any order.” That was kind of an ambition of mine, and I quickly discovered that the human brain doesn’t work that way. We like stories to have beginnings, middles and ends. It was ambitious, and you try to learn as you go. And what I realized is, particularly with jokes, punchlines are funnier coming after setups. That’s a lot of what we’re doing.

At one point, Showtime was going to resurrect Arrested Development.
What was presented to me was, it’s going to be half the cast, half the fees, half the license fee. At that point it really didn’t make sense to do it. Showtime was great, (but) they didn’t want to spend as much money as we’d spent at Fox, which would have meant paring down the cast and doing a smaller show. And I had never wanted to do that. That had been a longtime struggle, to simplify the show. Not necessarily lose cast members, but, do you have to have a story for every character in every show? I liked the idea of this family all being intertwined.

How was it different writing to a cult audience for a streaming series versus having to worry about ratings on a broadcast or cable network?
Comedy is about an audience. I’ve been working on this for a long time now, so I really had time to go through a lot of the range of what I think people want, the ways in which I want to defy expectation, the ways in which I want to undermine expectation, or reward it. But ultimately it’s all through the filter of my own creativity, obviously. It definitely isn’t pandering. In fact, I did go out of my way to not do the greatest hits. There are some notable absences. But I wouldn’t have done that had I not thought there was a future to this. I have places for things down the road.

Once you got the initial greenlight to create new episodes, did you go out and hire writers?
Because this was still speculative, we did not have the actors’ names on the dotted line. Not because the actors were being recalcitrant or anything, but because they had schedules. They couldn’t just say, “Sure, use me two weeks whenever you want.” Three of my longtime colleagues I brought in: Jim Vallely, Dean Lorey and Richie Rosenstock. I was able to get them to be full-time players, although they still weren’t paid like they would be on a normal show. They had to take a risk too. Then the other people we got as weeklies, and they left. I mean, because we weren’t able to pay competitively what, you know, Community would pay, which is a known quantity, I’d get some of these guys for three weeks and they’d leave. That’s why you see endless names on the credits. Because everybody was there for three weeks and left. (Laughs.) Which almost became harder. I’d have to spend two days just explaining it every time a new writer would come in.