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Emmys Seldom Blaze Trails

Who ultimately wins at the Emmys is often less interesting — and celebrated — than who didn’t.

TV reporters are often out of their element when covering their own medium. So when one approached seeking a talking head to discuss “How Emmy nominations for Netflix have changed television,” they had it almost exactly wrong.

The Emmys don’t change TV, but rather — at key moments, anyway — can reflect how the industry is changing. They’re less about blazing trails then following them.

Whether or not “House of Cards” represented the year’s best series, the political drama starring Kevin Spacey clearly marked a step up for Web-delivered content in terms of ambition and buzz — a further indication that lines separating such programming from traditional TV are increasingly blurry and arbitrary.

Yet historically, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which presents the awards, has a mixed track record regarding such trends. Simply put, voters are usually quick to identify significant new programs and recognize them with noms, but slow to take the bigger leap and let them walk away a winner.

For a time this translated to whatever would be the opposite of a sophomore jinx. Programs like “NYPD Blue” and “ER” — which took the industry by storm and invigorated the TV drama in the mid-1990s — were each showered with nominations in their first year, but didn’t actually win until their second. The same held true for the NBC comedy “Will & Grace” — groundbreaking in its portrayal of a gay leading character — two years after Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out, in real life and on her eponymous ABC sitcom, was largely overlooked.

The next year the trophy went to another second-year comedy with long cultural legs, “Sex and the City.”

HBO’s other titan of that period, “The Sopranos” — perhaps one of the most influential programs in establishing cable’s growing influence — didn’t actually win the drama prize until its fifth season in 2004 (and again three years later). Then again, the show towered above a fellow HBO drama, “The Wire,” which earned a mere pair of nods (both for writing) and never won despite how widely it’s admired within the industry.

While the Emmys have often been slower to honor new programs than, say, the Golden Globes, there’s a certain logic to this prove-it-to-me attitude. TV, after all, is about repetition, about proving a good pilot can actually be replicated, and then for years beyond that.

Still, with the pace of the culture accelerating and TV storytelling becoming ever more intricate, the Emmys seem to be reflecting some of that sped-up metabolism. Perhaps that explains how “Mad Men,” “Modern Family” and last year “Homeland” could win in their first seasons, even if the first two held onto their crowns for multiple years thereafter.

Given how competitive some of these categories are, just being invited to the party as a nominee makes a statement (as Netflix has) that a show or service has earned a seat at the big kid’s table. As the acad’s awards guru, John Leverence, noted in TV Guide, cable became eligible for Emmy consideration 25 years ago and didn’t earn its first major honors (for movies “Stalin” and “Barbarians at the Gate”) until about five years later — roughly the same amount of time it’s taken for a Web series to make the cut since rules were amended to admit them in 2008.

Although the Emmys have been prone to follow trends, the academy has usually managed to get its act together. Despite perceptions the organization is a bit stodgy, it does appear slightly more sensitive to such shifts than it was in the past.

Then again, in a Web culture that thrives on a good argument and perceived “snubs,” who ultimately wins at the Emmys is often less interesting — and celebrated — than who didn’t.

And that, at least, seems unlikely to change.

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