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HBO’s Return to Emmy Nomination Dominance May Be Short-Lived (Column)

As Hollywood braces for the coming streaming wars, HBO’s huge Emmy nomination haul this week sent a new salvo Netflix’s way: The streamer may have the volume, but HBO still has the goods. At least this year.

HBO’s record-breaking 137 nominations came on the strength of just 23 programs — led, of course, by “Game of Thrones,” with its history-setting 32 nods. 

But “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” are now over, so this could very well represent the pinnacle of HBO’s Emmy might, nearly three decades after the pay cabler first became an awards machine. It comes at a transformative time in the industry, as more streamers prepare to come online and further tip the small screen’s balance of power.

It’s not news that the broadcast networks — which dominated the Emmy proceedings until the 21st century — have seen their fortunes decline steadily, even as they continue to telecast the annual ceremony. But this year, the dip was also noticeable among the ranks of several major cable networks as well. 

Next year, looking to further flip the balance of power, newcomers to the Emmy race will include Apple, which has zoomed in on high-end fare and is building an awards strategy team; Disney Plus, which won’t be as kudos-focused but will still boast freshman contenders; HBO Max, offering originals beyond HBO’s output; and perhaps Comcast’s still-unnamed streamer. 

Add in an increasingly aggressive Amazon Prime Video, which doubled its nomination haul this year, and a fully Disney-backed Hulu, and next year’s Emmy race could shake out completely differently. 

A shift has already begun, with broadcast and cable already hit hard by the changing tides. 

The exit of “Game of Thrones” in particular might be seen as a clearing of the decks, and open the door for more outlets to move into contention. At that point, Netflix’s volume game might serve as better nomination insurance: More contenders serve to guarantee a healthy number of at-bats.

But for now, let’s let HBO enjoy its moment. In some ways, this year’s tally represents the ultimate denouement to Emmy’s Cable Era — a victory lap of sorts for HBO, the network that changed the TV awards game and made the CableACE Awards obsolete by taking on the broadcast networks, and winning.

“HBO has been a very formidable 500-pound gorilla for a very long time,” FX Networks CEO John Landgraf told me earlier this year. “For 20 years they have consistently had 100 or more Emmy nominations. … I really give a lot of credit to HBO.”

And the WarnerMedia-owned channel can also look forward to what is expected to be quite a bounty of wins this Emmy night.

After all, there’s a real chance HBO could pull off an almost unprecedented feat in this modern, highly fractionalized TV era: winning at least four of the major program categories. Not only are “Thrones” and “Veep” considered front-runners in the outstanding drama and comedy categories, but the network could pick up the Emmy for TV movie (“Deadwood”) and is a contender in limited series (“Chernobyl”). (“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” will likely once again land the trophy for variety/talk series.)

This isn’t a farewell, of course, to HBO’s Emmy success. As AT&T invests more in HBO’s programming budget, aiming to bulk up the network’s output in the shadow of the Netflix threat, that volume may keep it competitive for years to come. And even without “Thrones” and “Veep,” HBO will continue to be a contender next year, with the return of programs like “Westworld” and “Big Little Lies,” along with network staples including “Last Week Tonight.” 

But with all of these retiring series and the coming streaming apocalypse, one can’t help experiencing an “end of an era” feeling with this year’s Emmys. 

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