When it comes to TV awards, digital may be the new cable.
Internet-streaming services Netflix and Amazon are producing award-worthy original programming — and Hulu, Yahoo and AOL are also jumping into the game, looking to garner industry accolades for their content investments and the marketing lift they provide.
The digital insurgents haven’t fully crossed the divide yet, having been shut out of major Emmy wins so far. The highest-profile victories have been David Fincher’s directing win for “House of Cards” season one, and “Orange Is the New Black” co-star Uzo Aduba’s (pictured above) guest actress Emmy last year.
But the tide appears to be shifting. “Cards” star Kevin Spacey won the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award this year; “OITNB” picked up two SAG wins; and Amazon Studios’ “Transparent” won a Globe for best comedy series, while star Jeffrey Tambor nabbed lead actor.
“We are moving now into an age where art is being funded from so many disparate sources, from the Netflixs and Amazons and others,” says Jesse Redniss, partner with media-consulting firm Brave Ventures. “There are going to be more and more instances of these players winning awards.”
For years, TV programming was created by just a handful of networks, which Redniss compares to wealthy Renaissance patrons like the Medicis funding all the great art from the era. Now, there are dozens of buyers for top-notch shows: “It’s the democratization of art and storytelling,” he says.
There are still digital-specific categories for the Emmys and other awards. But the lines are blurring between digital and traditional linear television — look no further than HBO’s recent launch of the standalone, $15-per-month HBO Now service, available in the same way Netflix is.
Still, it took cable nets years to crack the Primetime Emmys. The first cable series to win a best drama laurel was “The Sopranos” in 2004 for its fifth season. Since then, only two broadcast shows have won best drama: ABC’s “Lost” in 2005 and Fox’s “24” in 2006.
“It took cable a long time to stop being called ‘cable,’” says Dermot McCormack, president of AOL Video & Studios, who joined the Internet-media company from Viacom last year. “We still call digital ‘over-the-top’ today, but consumers don’t differentiate.”
When it comes to awards, the TV industry still harbors a bias against content distributed on digital platforms, according to McCormack. But he predicts that will change quickly.
AOL’s “Park Bench With Steve Buscemi” was nominated for an Emmy last year, in the short-form nonfiction program category. The show returns for a second season early this summer. “We do feel like we have content that is creatively different, and we want to put our best foot forward,” McCormack says. In May, Verizon acquired AOL in a $4.4 billion deal, as the telco looks to launch a wireless-centric Internet video service with AOL’s originals and ad-serving technology.
This year could be a tipping point for digital platforms to raise their status as major contenders for awards recognition, says Daniel O’Keefe, general partner at Technology Crossover Ventures. TCV investments include Netflix and Vice Media, which won a 2014 Emmy for its show on HBO.
“You see Netflix winning Emmys, Vice winning Emmys — these are new players creating truly innovative content,” O’Keefe says. “The creative geniuses want to go where the audience is going.”
For this year’s Emmys race, Netflix is expected to lead again with its flagship originals “House of Cards” and “Orange” (although “OITNB” moves to the drama category, after competing as a comedy last year).
Netflix in just a few short years has built up an operation as big as traditional TV networks for original content development, says Dana Brunetti, president of Trigger Street Prods., Spacey’s production company that is behind “House of Cards.” He adds that compared with old-style TV distribution, Netflix’s on-demand model is a boon for creators to better connect with audiences.
“Quality of content definitely matters, and the ease of being able to get what you want when you want it definitely matters,” says Brunetti.
Hulu, meanwhile, has stepped up the action on its originals slate. The most eye-catching pickup: event series “11/22/63,” based on Stephen King’s JFK assassination time-travel thriller and starring James Franco, which Hulu expects to release in early 2016. Hulu also has ordered comedies executive produced by Amy Poehler and Jason Reitman.
Jenny Wall, Hulu’s head of marketing, says the company has not decided which series it might promote for major awards. “We really haven’t had a breakout show yet,” she acknowledges. At the same time, Wall says: “Our strategy is not to try to develop award-winning programming — it’s to create content our viewers will love.”
Amazon, for its part, is throwing all of its Emmy-campaigning weight behind “Transparent” in the Primetime Emmys comedy series categories, including pushing Tambor for lead actor. The studio also is soliciting Emmys voters on the original main title theme music, composed by Dustin O’Halloran.
“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway shopped the series around to “the six or seven usual suspects,” including HBO and Showtime, both of which she’s worked for in the past. But Amazon was “so passionate and committed” to the project it made the choice a no-brainer, she said at a recent event at the Paley Center for Media in New York. Moreover, whereas traditional networks often require review and approval of three actors per role, she says, Amazon OK’d her casting picks out of the gate.
Smaller digital distributors, too, are hoping to break into the Emmys with their exclusive TV distribution deals. RLJ Entertainment’s Acorn TV, a subscription VOD service that specializes in British fare with about 150,000 customers, is submitting the finales of the latest seasons of “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” and spy drama “Foyle’s War” for consideration in the TV movie categories. The service has exclusive U.S. rights to the series.
“For us, entering the Emmys race is a really powerful way to communicate the level of quality we have on Acorn TV,” says VP Matt Graham. “We’re a smaller company. We need to be scrappy and try to elevate the awareness for our brand.”
Ultimately it’s just a matter of time before original programming from digital platforms starts winning more high-profile awards. As Redniss puts it: “Great programming can come on any screen, and if you want to associate yourself with great storytelling as a brand, you don’t have to look at just broadcast or cable TV.”