Award shows have always wrestled with balancing art and commerce — weighing the noble ability to recognize deserving fare that might not be widely viewed against lauding projects with which more of the audience is familiar, which is generally beneficial ratings-wise.
Yet as original TV series move into the “It’s not even just on TV anymore” phase, those considerations have become even more complicated — and, occasionally, unknowable.
The broadcast networks that share TV rights to the Emmys have long chafed at the bounties harvested by premium cable, particularly HBO, which has at times turned the industry’s annual bash into an extended commercial for pay TV. (The networks enjoyed a mini-resurgence at the most recent Emmys, thanks to such series as “Modern Family” and “The Good Wife.”)
The appetite for original programming, however, has expanded the balloting beyond even HBO’s and Showtime’s niche audiences to the “We’re not even sure how many people are watching” metrics of Netflix and Amazon. And with streaming services and lesser cable channels mounting more quality competitors — as much to enhance their brands and generate subscriptions as garner ratings — award voters sometimes don’t even possess viewing data to inform their decisionmaking.
Clearly, the Writers Guild of America was platform-agnostic in nominating comedy series that bypassed not only the broadcast networks but most of basic cable, choosing entries from Netflix and Amazon (“Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent,” respectively), FX’s widely admired if little-seen “Louie” and two HBO series, “Veep” and “Silicon Valley.”
What many alternative programs do have going for them, however, is star quality, which in light of the evolving nature of award shows can compensate for puny audiences. “Who are you wearing?” can trump discussion of the actual work on red carpets. Having seen the show becomes less important than knowing who’s in it.
Historically that emphasis on celebrity has always been an advantage at, say, the Golden Globes, where the nominating body tends to be adept at casting a TV special that consistently put high-profile actors front and center.
The process becomes self-perpetuating, because the ego strokes that come from awards help attract talent to relatively narrow services, reinforcing the sense they are earning admiration from their peers, if not necessarily people they’re apt to encounter beyond valet lines.
At the same time, newer players are also taking casting chances their elder brethren usually wouldn’t, such as elevating Jeffrey Tambor — about as accomplished a second banana as there is, as “The Larry Sanders Show” directly and symbolically cast him — to a breakthrough leading-man turn in “Transparent,” at the not-exactly “key demo” friendly age of 70.
TV awards will never achieve total purity — there’s too much politics, and too many apples-and-oranges matchups, for that — but there does seem to be a push toward honoring the medium’s finest without much regard to origins, humble or otherwise.
By that measure, the award circuit is increasingly mirroring the personal way TV is consumed and experienced — where all that really matters to the viewer, ultimately, is an audience of one.