Saturday, September 23, 2017

Streaming in the winner's circle

A look at shifts in the “Best Drama” category 

The Handmaid’s Tale was awarded Best Drama at this year’s Emmys, the first streaming show to ever to do so. Before the ceremony critics wondered whether academy voters would hand the award to This Is Us, which would have signalled that the broadcast drama is still alive and fighting. Instead, the drama from first-time nominee streaming network Hulu took the prize.

Another notable difference this year was the prominence of streaming show nominees. For the first time ever, streaming shows dominated the category with four out of seven nominations. It might have been an unpleasant surprise to Netflix, who had three nominees this year and has been on the slate for the past five, that the distinction should go to Hulu. In any case, Handmaid's win is an indicator that streaming has made its mark and will continue to spur the industry's digital transformation.

Until the arrival of prestige cable, ushered in by HBO’s The Sopranos, broadcast television was never challenged. “Remember broadcast? The TV O.G.,” Stephen Colbert quipped in his opening monologue at this year’s ceremony.

My personal TV viewing years peaked in the cable era and I couldn’t recall the last broadcast drama that won. I went back to the historical data to see the trends and the visual shift is compelling.

A few notes:
  • A show from a streaming network won Best Drama on the fifth year that streaming was represented as a nominee. It took cable six years after first being nominated in the category to gain a win.
  • The Sopranos was HBO’s magic bullet that put cable on the board in the 1998-99 season. House of Cards did the same for Netflix in the 2012-13 season.
  • Even after The Sopranos' first win in 2004, and nominations for every season it aired, cable still faced competition from broadcast for two more years. Lost and 24 picked up awards in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Cable secured the win in 2007, for The Sopranos once again, and never again lost to broadcast, who offered a dwindiling number of nominees over succeeding. Shows from cable networks were the only Best Drama winners in the past ten years, until this year.
  • Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Sopranos were cable’s winning shows with two to three wins each. The last broadcast ‘mainstay’ was The West Wing, which enjoyed consecutive wins for its first four seasons.

The rise of prestige streaming

Whether the crown will stay with cable networks will be up for debate in the next few years but cable certainly has huge competition now.

Prestige streaming has been challenging cable for several years, with online producers investing heavily in original programming. Netflix led the category with House of Cards as the first streaming program ever to be nominated for an Emmy, and the network continues to invest in a wide range of original programming. The three up for Best Drama this year were vastly different – political drama House of Cards, thriller Stranger Things and historical drama The Crown. It has an equally unique and critically-lauded collection of comedies. Amazon and Hulu have rich original products as well, though none as popular as Netflix's series.

Though we can’t discount cable completely.  The absence of Game of Thrones may have given streaming shows an early entry into the winner’s circle. The show’s last two seasons will remain major contenders. HBO’s other prestige fantasy, Westworld, was also nominated this year, while FX, AMC, and Showtime continue to produce critically-acclaimed programs. Cable may win for a few more seasons, but it will be interesting to see how many it will take for the tide to shift completely to streaming shows (as it did for cable after The Sopranos secured their second win in 2007), or whether cable will continue to challenge streaming.

Notes of digital interest

Television is an interesting vertical to explore in terms of digital transformation because new technology, new players, new ways to engage with the old, are so evident. Three things that stand out:

  • Contribution to fragmentation of the category: Streaming has provided a platform for content that would never be viable on broadcast television, or even cable, with their fixed airing periods. Streaming platforms make their programs available on-demand and opens up a content long tail that is not restricted by broadcast periods. The results have been glorious. So many new points of view are now being represented. These programs fit with audience demand and the digital behavior of finding a constantly refreshed stream of content that resonates with audiences’ personal stories and narratives.
  • Format shifting and bending: Streaming shows can play with episode lengths, airing dates and how quickly they release their episodes (binge vs. weekly). This season Master of None took complete license over episode lengths, with one episode at just over twenty minutes and one extending almost to an hour. In fact the series itself took a break in the 2016 season while creators took the time to refuel with new material. With Game of Thrones as a unique exception, most shows would lose network support and probably fan interest if it took more than a year off to air. Netflix won audiences over with the whole-season drop starting with House of Cards and streaming networks continue to play with binge vs. weekly releases for different programs.
  • Diversity to include a more global perspective: This may be unique to Netflix for now, and one of the reasons I find it such an exciting company to watch, but its expansion to other markets could eventually lead to a more global programming slate. This could happen on two fronts. First, in terms of local original programming. The US is likely to remain its center-of-gravity but for Netflix to make a big difference in markets like India, Korea or the Philippines, it will have to penetrate through original local programs. This would be interesting to see. Second would be the potential for Netflix to create a truly global experience. As it is, based out of Singapore, I have access to a growing number of Indian and Japanese properties. But that Netflix could one day broadcast a premier Korean drama or even Philippine drama to other countries is phenomenal. There are cultural hegemony questions and potential issues here I’m sure but the idea that my favorite shows could eventually include shows from countries outside the US and Britain is pretty exciting.
In any and every case the real winner for now are we, the viewers. With so much quality choice in every genre, sub-genre and new genres, there is never a lack of quality programming. As television's influence grows, we are sure to stay tuned.


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