Broadcast network execs have long grumbled about their shows having to compete against edgy, star-driven and sometimes bigger budgeted cable fare at the Emmy Awards. But now broadcast and cable foes may find themselves united against a new rival: digital programmers like Netflix and Amazon.
Thanks to a 2008 rule change, the Academy of TV Arts and Sciences allows shows like Netflix's House of Cards and Arrested Development to be nominated for Emmys in the same categories as broadcast and cable contenders; that means a show that isn't regularly scheduled on a linear TV channel might wind up competing against broadcast and cable shows for one of Emmy's top series awards.
"Our rules are silent on what screens a program is received," says John Leverence, the senior vice president in charge of awards at the TV Academy. "I suspect that 2008 will join 1988 — when the Academy introduced cable into eligibility — as a landmark year in the history of the Primetime Emmys."
Leverence notes that it took six years for a cable network to win its first major program award (HBO's Stalin and Barbarians at the Gate, which tied for outstanding made-for-television movie in 1993). Five years after the new digital rule, no series has been nominated in a major category, but that could change this year with the buzzy House of Cards, its stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and producer-director David Fincher.
On the comedy side, Netflix's strategy of uploading a series' entire season at once essentially guarantees Arrested Development's eligibility. The streaming service is expected to launch all 14 episodes of the comedy in late May, which will allow it to compete in the 2013 race. Had Arrested premiered on a TV network that late, not enough episodes would have aired before the May 31 awards cutoff (pushing the show to the 2014 race).
House of Cards looks like a TV show, and viewers consume it as such. "If something's good and it helps push quality forward, we have to accept it," says one broadcast network executive. But there never seems to be a shortage of griping when it comes to the Emmys; last year, the inclusion of FX's American Horror Story in the miniseries category caused a minor controversy.
"Will there be grumbling? Of course," says one insider. "Some people just aren't wired to accept change. To wit: the broadcast nets still aren't pleased about the unevenness of the playing field, with cable dominating nominations and wins." Another executive suggests that the TV academy should seriously consider expanding the outstanding series categories to 10, in order to accommodate the explosion in original programming. (The nomination cap is currently at six.)
A Netflix spokeswoman declined to comment on its Emmy plans. Perhaps that's because Netflix is still deciding how to conduct its first-ever awards campaign. The service has so far not made House of Cards screeners available to TV critics on DVD but may have to send the show out on disc to Emmy voters in order to reach Academy members who don't like to watch TV on the Internet or via streaming services.
Meanwhile, while Netflix potentially transforms the face of the Emmy Awards' major categories, the lesser-known categories devoted to short-form programming are also likely to get more competitive.
Most Internet streaming videos, even professionally made ones, are too short to compete in the major series categories. But just about all of them — professional or not — are eligible for either the "Outstanding Special Class — Short Format Live-Action Entertainment Program" or "Outstanding Special Class — Short Format Nonfiction Program" awards. In the past, most of those categories' nominees have been web extensions of TV shows, such as BravoTV.com's Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen, NBC.com's Jay Leno's Garage and Comedy Central Digital Media's The Daily Show Correspondents Explain.
This year, those categories are likely to heat up given the explosion of new short-form programs on channels like YouTube's WIGS, MachinimaPrime and AwesomenessTV. (Internet nominations already doubled in 2012, with 11 nominations, verse five in 2011.)
Even Jerry Seinfeld, via his Crackle series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, or Zach Galifianakis and his Funny or Die series Between Two Ferns could be in the mix. "The Internet is about to come to consciousness about the Emmys," Leverence says.
In fact, the Emmys' digital-series rule means that technically anyone who uploads programming to platforms like YouTube is eligible. "We leave it to our voting members to determine quality, with excellence the criterion for nominations and wins," Leverence says.
But before you submit your homemade "Harlem Shake" videos, take note. "The average entry fee paid for programs is $600 to $700, so the YouTube backyard barbecue video featuring Fido jumping in the pool is probably not going to be entered," says Leverence. "But it could be."