LOS GATOS (CBS SF/AP) – If Netflix’s “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development” on Thursday become the first online contenders to nab top Emmy nominations, it will be a breakthrough moment for shows making a splash without the aid of a TV set.
If not, it’s just a matter of time before the inevitable happens.
The video universe that once meant simply broadcast television, then added cable and satellite, has splintered again to encompass websites including YouTube and streaming services including Netflix and Amazon.
The expansion was recognized in 2008 by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with a rules change that added the Internet as an eligible Emmy platform. As with broadcast networks and other video distributors, programs must reach more than half of the U.S. audience to make the cut.
When the Emmy nods are announced early Thursday, a fair number of pundits say clever political drama “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development,” the offbeat sitcom resurrected by Netflix after it was dumped by Fox, will be in the awards hunt.
The series are tagged for possible top drama and comedy bids, with “House of Cards” stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright and “Arrested Development” cast members including Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter seen as contenders for acting nominations.
There have been Internet nominees before, such as last year’s “Web Therapy” and “30 Rock: The Webisodes” in a short-format category, but not in the premier fields of acting and best series.
Online shows competing with Emmy champs “Breaking Bad” and “Modern Family” will be the 21st-century version of the watershed 1990s showings by HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show, “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” in those high-gloss categories.
As for this year’s potential game-change, “It certainly is a marker of the new era. … It will send shock waves through the industry,” said Tim Brooks, a former network executive and TV historian who co-wrote “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.”
The Emmys rarely provide a ratings boost akin to the box-office advantage that can be conferred by Oscar or Tony honors, but Brooks said they are meaningful to industry insiders.
“It makes it acceptable for A-list creatives to work for you. They like awards and the acclaim of their fellows,” he said. Good programming thus begets more good programming and, for services like Netflix, potentially more revenue-producing subscribers.
Garth Ancier, a former network chief and an Emmy voter, received DVDs of Netflix’s series as part of the usual lobbying efforts that surround awards.
“I was kind of surprised, because I don’t really think of Netflix as being television,” Ancier said. It also seems “sort of odd the academy is so up-to-date. That said, ‘House of Cards’ is great stuff and it does make sense.”
The change in the awards to be presented on CBS Sept. 22 reflects the relentless march of technology — and a comparatively fleet response by Emmy organizers, noted one observer.
“The Emmys are being surprisingly open to new media these days, considering their stubborn history” with cable, said Tom O’Neil, editor of the Gold Derby awards predictions website.
For nearly four decades after the 1949 inception of the Emmys, eligibility was limited to programs that aired on free television, including networks, syndication and PBS. Finally, the gates swung open.
“By 1988, a critical mass of our members were making TV shows distributed on cable platforms” and believed their shows were on par with those airing on broadcast, according to awards director John Leverence. The board of governors agreed and voted in the change.
Before then, however, a frustrated cable industry created an alternative platform for honors, the CableAce Awards, which began in 1979 and ended in 1998 after cable shows became an entrenched part of the Emmys.
So entrenched, in fact, that in some categories, particularly for dramas and miniseries, cable stars like “Breaking Bad” and “Homeland” now dominate. It’s been an ongoing frustration for broadcasters, who say federal rules bar from competing with the more explicit fare available on cable.
Freewheeling Internet series enjoy that same edge, and have the benefit of a growing number of viewers at ease with looking past TV to watch shows on their device of choice. Are the Emmys destined to be an all-online beauty pageant?
Not so fast, said historian Brooks.
“That’s quite a ways down the road. … It was really 20 years before cable started to score major hits like `The Sopranos,'” he said. And while Netflix’s bid for prestige is impressive, “there just aren’t as many Netflixes as there are cable hits.”
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