Emmys: Prestige Drama Boom Good for Viewers, Overwhelming for Voters

Emmy TV Drama Preview Emerging Networks
Courtesy of Pivot/Sundance TV/WGN

If voracious viewers find it hard to keep up with all the quality dramas on TV, just imagine how Emmy voters feel. Last year, 108 titles were submitted for consideration as outstanding drama series. This year, that number spiked to 145.

And the competition has grown increasingly cutthroat thanks to a number of critical darlings from small-but-aggressive new players like WGN America, Pivot and Sundance.

This year, the TV Academy changed its rules to allow seven drama series battle for the top prize — up from six — sending studios and networks into a campaigning frenzy for a coveted slot. Since two of last year’s contenders — heavyweights “Breaking Bad” and “True Detective” — won’t be returning this year, there’s certainly room for a breakout. But favorites “Downton Abbey,” “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards” and “Mad Men” are still firmly in the mix, while another of last year’s nominees — “Orange Is the New Black” — now contends as a drama.

The question is, will voters cast an eye beyond the many well-established contenders?

Sundance’s “Rectify” is hoping for some Emmy love. The acclaimed drama’s first season ran for just six episodes in spring 2013, and helped lay the foundation for an even more buzzed-about 10-episode second season. When the series returned last summer, Variety’s Brian Lowry said, “(Sundance) has a series that puts it on the map with the big boys, quality-wise.”

“It’s nice when you launch that effort with something you feel can be synonymous with the brand,” says Ed Carroll, COO of AMC Networks, which includes Sundance. “What links AMC’s early days of development and Sundance is we weren’t particularly worried about ratings, which sounds antithetical in television, but we weren’t. We wanted to have a distinctive voice and do something that would stand out in what is becoming a more densely populated crowd.”

Created by Ray McKinnon, the artful, deliberately paced drama connected with critics, distinguished by painterly cinematography and a stellar cast including Aden Young, Abigail Spencer, Adelaide Clemens, Clayne Crawford, Luke Kirby and J. Smith-Cameron.

But Carroll admits all the enthusiastic reviews in the world aren’t always enough to cut through. “The potentially frustrating part is even when you create something that you think is really, really good and deserves attention, it’s hard to get people to notice,” he says.

“It’s harder today than it ever was before. Part of that is people saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll get to it, but I’ll get to it when I get to it.’ Historically, television executives have not been the most patient people in the world. That is going to have to change for the way we evaluate success.”

One way to evaluate success beyond ratings is to land your own prestige show — the kind of series that can define a whole network and put it in a perennial award season hunt. Think of what “Mad Men” did for AMC, “The Shield” did for FX, “House of Cards” for Netflix, or — back in the day — “The Sopranos” (and “The Larry Sanders Show” before it) for HBO.

Upstart network Pivot, the TV arm of Participant Media that launched less than two years ago, took a big swing with its first scripted drama — the Arctic thriller “Fortitude.”

“This was exactly the right opportunity at the right time,” says Belisa Balaban, Pivot exec VP of original programming, about the distinctive skein, with a cast that includes Stanley Tucci and Michael Gambon.

Pivot picked up co-producer duties alongside Sky Atlantic when original partner Starz dropped out. “It was too good to pass up,” Balaban says. “Being part of an international launch, the way ‘Fortitude’ has had, has been a great benefit to us. We were day and date with many other countries around the world and really became part of something much bigger than just us.”

The offbeat series created by Simon Donald drew comparisons to “Twin Peaks” in its exploration of a shocking crime in a remote, tranquil setting. Blending elements of mystery, horror and relationship drama, the show also fit Pivot’s mission for “programming that inspires social change,” especially in its unpredictable depiction of the effects of climate change.

Balaban believes the appetite of today’s audiences for intricate stories well told is nearly insatiable. “If ‘Serial,’ the podcast, was able to completely reinvent audio storytelling it’s an indicator of how strong this attraction is for audiences to hook into a complex story (that goes) deeper and deeper over time. That’s one of the unique offerings television has.

“There’s a richness (to serialized TV) that’s extremely satisfying. And, let’s admit it, irresistible in a certain way. There have been shows I wanted to quit because I just don’t have that much time, but I can’t quit them.”

WGN America president Matt Cherniss says getting into scripted drama was a priority for his network, but it’s easier said than done. “In a lot of ways it’s difficult to find great television,” he acknowledges. “They are big bets and in that sense they’re difficult decisions, but when you find a piece of compelling entertainment that moves and excites you, that above all else is the determining factor.”

The cabler has especially high awards-season hopes for its second venture, “Manhattan,” created by “Masters of Sex” veteran Sam Shaw and exec produced by nine-time Emmy winner Thomas Schlamme.

“We were the first show out with our screener and that was by design,” Cherniss says of the show’s Emmy campaign, intended to make sure voters are aware of the period series amidst all the intense competition. “Before the onslaught arrived we wanted to make sure people could see the show — and see every episode of the show. The first step was get it in as many people’s hands as possible.”

There are reasons to be optimistic, to be sure. The Emmy rule changes were specifically designed to answer complaints that the awards keep going to the same shows, year after year.

But there is also evidence to suggest the TV Academy’s taste — or perhaps just its time — is limited. Witness the near total shutout of FX’s “The Americans,” the year’s highest-ranked series on Metacritic and recent winner of the TV Critics’ Choice award for best drama in its first two seasons.

No matter what makes the Emmy cut this year, Carroll believes the onslaught of exceptional programming is a sign of how quickly television has evolved as an art form.

“I think it’s opened a door for a generation of writers that even a decade or so ago really weren’t thinking about television. If you were making art, you would go to movies and maybe independent cinema. Now we meet with writers and directors (who) point to ‘Breaking Bad,’ they point to ‘Mad Men,’ they point to ‘Lost,’ and they say, ‘I really never thought that kind of storytelling was possible on television.’ A lot has changed in a short time.”

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