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HBO, FX, Netflix Make Emmy Gains as Broadcast Nets Fade

When it comes to Emmy nomination bragging rights, no one can touch HBO. For 16 straight years, the premium cabler has drawn the most noms (this year it’s 94), having set a record of 124 in 2004 and then breaking that record last year with 126.

But something interesting happened in the runner-up slots this year. FX — powered by hot limited series “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “Fargo” — placed second with 56 noms, a new record for basic cable. And Netflix, in only its fifth year of Emmy contention, was right behind with 54 noms.

That makes 2016 the first year ever without a single broadcast network included among the three most-nominated outlets. The year’s most nominated broadcaster is NBC with 41 noms. The Peacock dominated the kudos through most of the ’90s, when HBO was a network on the rise, but like its fellow broadcasters has ceded ground in recent years.

Ironically, HBO’s dominance came about because of the broadness of its slate. From scripted series (“Game of Thrones,” “Veep”) and telepics (“All the Way,” “Confirmation”) to variety specials (Beyonce’s “Lemonade,” “Amy Schumer: Live at the Apollo”) and nonfiction (“Vice,” “Everything Is Copy”), there’s barely an Emmy field without a top contender from HBO. It even popped up in the reality race this year with unstructured nominee “Project Greenlight.”

That kind of diversity of programming used to be the strong suit of the broadcast nets (who were primarily competing amongst themselves in a now-bygone era of TV). These days, the big three — ABC, CBS, and NBC — are most competitive in the variety and reality categories, with the number of shows that pop in scripted series races (a “Modern Family” here, or “American Crime” there) increasingly fewer and further between.

That’s partly why it’s hard to see FX as much of a threat to HBO’s Emmy stranglehold. Its kudos count has only grown in recent years — especially as the cabler become a savvy pioneer of the “limited series” format as established by “American Horror Story” — opening up significant distance over other prestige nets such as Showtime and AMC. But, like the broadcast nets in reverse, it registers almost exclusively in the scripted series arena.

Growing a reputation in that field is a worthy goal, and the TV Academy’s recognition of acclaimed drama “The Americans” in the series, actor, and actress categories this year had to be heartening for FX. But if you’re looking for a true rival to the “something for everybody” programming of HBO, it’s Netflix. Comparing its Emmy trajectories illuminates the point.
HBO entered Emmy contention in 1988, and drew six nominations. By 1993 that number was up to 56, and by 2000 it would consistently stay above 80. (The last time any broadcaster drew over 80 noms was NBC in 2002.)

Netflix entered the Emmy race in 2012, but drew its first noms in 2013 with the bow of “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development.” As Netflix’s original content has exploded, so has its Emmy attention: From 14 noms in 2013, to 54 this year.

More importantly for future Emmy contests, Netflix has a diverse programming strategy very similar to HBO. While there were some notable Emmy disappointments this year (the mysterious dismissal of “Orange Is the New Black,” the shutout in variety talk and sketch categories), the streaming giant drew big noms across scripted series (“House of Cards,” “Master of None”), nonfiction (“What Happened Miss Simone?,” “Making a Murderer”), and variety special (standup concerts from John Mulaney and Patton Oswalt) categories. Netflix even landed in the TV movie category thanks to “A Very Murray Christmas.”

While Netflix has yet to enter the limited series field in a major way (British import “River” was on the ballot this year but drew no nominations), the Emmys haven’t seen a fresh-faced competitor this formidable since HBO.

That could mean interesting times ahead. HBO knows what it takes to get to the top of the Emmy race. Now we’ll see if it can stay there.

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