The Emmys and online shows: Yup, as stodgy as you'd think

Netflix made headlines last year at the Emmy television awards, but a deeper look shows the awards are no faster to recognize online programming than they were for cable.

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Joan E. Solsman/CNET

Technology has accelerated change in just about every aspect of life, including TV. The Emmys are the exception.

The Emmy awards, the most esteemed prizes in television, will be handed out Monday in a star-studded ceremony, and Netflix is again on full display. After 14 primetime Emmy nominations last year and three wins, programs from the streaming-video service were nominated 31 times this year. And so quickly they came: "House of Cards" was nominated and awarded in its first season, and Netflix only just began its originals push in 2012 with "Lilyhammer."

But looking closer at the primetime Emmys -- and all the primetime Emmys, not just those in categories televised to millions on broadcast TV -- reveals that cable and online programming waited the same amount of time to get a major series nomination after eligibility, six years. And despite "broadband-friendly" categories like short form, Web-based winners have been scarce unless they're only competing in exclusively "interactive" categories. Scarcer still are any online winners that lack ties to a traditional TV company.

So despite rapid changes in television because of technology, and despite the fact that creators making shows online routinely extol the creative freedom even compared to cable, broadband-based shows aren't getting Emmy recognition any faster than cable did 20 years ago.

Monday's ceremony could change that, should Netflix emerge with its arms toppling with statuettes. But if the awards handed out so far are any indication, online TV and the Emmys still have a long way to go.

Rapid change and total freedom

Video viewing has changed substantially in just a few years. Netflix said its subscribers streamed 6.5 billion hours of video in the first three months of this year, up from 4 billion hours a year earlier. YouTube streams about 6 billion hours of video in a single month. Researcher Nielsen found that while viewing of live television has held steady, the average time an adult spends every day on a smartphone, a gaming console, a multimedia device like Apple TV or a computer has jumped by a third from two years ago. The lines are blurring, with "television" coming to mean any video and "TVs" coming to mean any screen.

With the movement of television to connected platforms and devices, creators behind online programming for routinely highlight the creative liberties that comes with it.

"We had total artistic freedom," said Wren Arthur, an executive producer of "Park Bench with Steve Buscemi" from AOL, a nominee for Outstanding Short-Form Nonfiction Program this year (though not a winner; ESPN won that category). Arthur was shooting a pilot for ABC at the same time as "Park Bench," a process she called "extraordinarily different."

"They know what they want, and they want it exactly the way they want it," she said. "One was completely regimented, and the other was an experiment."

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AOL

Beau Willimon, the creator of "House of Cards," said at a panel discussion in April that Netflix liberated him and his writers with a 26-episode order. "We said to HBO, Showtime and AMC, 'We want a full season guaranteed,' which is an act of hubris," he said. Netflix response? Two seasons up front, at least.

Todd Yellin, Netflix's vice president of product innovation, characterized the distinction from cable as Netflix having taken the baton "and run even farther forward in breaking down the boundaries between movies and TV shows and how you tell a story," he said in an interview this month.

Before the throne

Cable rules the Emmys today. HBO hauled in 99 nominations this year, doubling the closest rival and preserving its streak as the network with the most nods for the 14th year. That, plus the resounding presence of networks like AMC, Showtime and FX at the Emmys, make it easy to forget it wasn't HBO's "The Sopranos" that kicked off cable's presence at the Emmys in 1999. It wasn't even "Oz," the prison drama that started in 1997. It was "The Larry Sanders Show," which began airing on HBO in 1992.

The comedy, set in the studio of a fake late-night talk show, garnered cable TV's first major series nomination in 1993. That's six years after the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences granted cable programming eligibility for the Emmys with the 1988 awards.

In a direct parallel, online programming also took six years to rack up a major series nomination. After the Academy's board of governors approved broadband as an eligible platform in 2008, it was the drama series nomination for "House of Cards" in 2013 that broke through.

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Nathaniel E. Bell/Netflix

In the years leading up to Netflix's nominations, online programing did have a presence at what is know as the Creative Arts Emmys. These awards, typically given out about a week before the big broadcast ceremony, are primetime Emmys that honor guest performances and behind-the-scenes jobs like casting and cinematography. Netflix, for example, has already won seven of the 31 awards it had a shot at this year, with people like Uzo Aduba -- who plays "Orange Is the New Black" character Crazy Eyes -- winning for best guest actress in a comedy.

However, "broadband" wins don't often go to broadband-only shops. The most frequent instances of online wins are in categories specifically tailored for them, like Outstanding Achievement in Interactive Media. Sometimes, true-blue online winners emerge, like "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" on YouTube last year or rides.tv's "Dirty Work" in 2012. But in most cases, the interactive awards go to online side-projects of major networks, like bravotv.com, history.com or nbc.com. Rarely does a completely online show win outside an interactive category. Traditional networks tend to dominate even "broadband-friendly" categories like Short-Format Live Action. Funnyordie.com managed a rare win this year in that group, with Zach Galifianakis's "Between Two Ferns" interview with President Barack Obama.

Finally, cable made it faster to main-ceremony wins faster than online programming. Christopher Lloyd won a lead acting Emmy for "Avonlea," a Disney Channel historical drama, in 1992 for cable, four years after eligibility. Broadband is still statueless.

Granted, only shows that are entered can be nominated and win. Tiffany Shlain, another creator for AOL whose show "The Future Starts Here" is in the running for a News And Documentary Emmy later this year, said her nomination came as a complete surprise. "We didn't enter, AOL entered it, so we didn't even know until we were nominated," she said. Though many Web series exist, few are run by people skilled at the Academy's nomination process, crimping their presence.

Fewer still are online advocates who get a chance to vote. The Academy hasn't disclosed the demographics of Emmys voters in detail, but they are presumed to be largely baby boomers, much older than the people most avidly watching or making online video.

And it's still early to gauge the treatment of a new form like broadband at the 66-year-old Emmy Awards. Will the Academy's voters get hip any more quickly? Multiple wins for Netflix Monday might indicate so, but the track record so far hints that online platforms have longer to wait until they get a starring role.

 

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