This Year’s Emmys & What it Means for the Future of Television

Netflix House of CardsAm I a hypocrite? In order to commentate on television and video, does one have to watch the Emmys? Because I didn’t do that.

In my defense, it is my love of television that prevented me from watching the Emmys. The Emmys were up against it on Sunday. From the NFL and “Breaking Bad”, to “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” and the premiere of “Eastbound & Down”, if anybody should understand why I didn’t tune in last night, it should be the very people who run the Emmys. 

Thanks to Variety though, I got the full run-down, story lines and all. But what stood out to me was not the fact that Jeff Daniels won best actor or that Tony Hale won best supporting actor, it was the fact that this year’s Emmys actually spelled out the future of television.

So in predicting the future of television, what is it that the Emmy’s conveyed last night? Simply put, the day will come when the best shows on TV, won’t be on TV anymore.

Now, I know what you’re saying, this is no real revelation, and if you have been following the entertainment industry for the last five years, you certainly have a point. But up until last night, what we didn’t have as evidence was non-traditional television playing such a major role in what has traditionally been TV’s domain.

First, look at where some of the nominees were coming from. For best drama, Netflix’s “House of Cards” was one of the favorites, and the show’s director, David Fincher, actually took home the Emmy for best director. But the biggest win for Netflix and the idea that TV does not have to be on TV anymore is the fact that the creator of “Breaking Bad,” Vince Gilligan, gave Netflix credit for keeping the show on air.

That’s right! The man who has every right to swagger his nipples while drenched with ego, took his moment on stage, as the best producer in television, and thanked an online service for his success. If that does not demonstrate the power of Netflix in a way that we haven’t seen before, I don’t know what will. A Hollywood icon thanking somebody else during his (pen)ultimate moment? That doesn’t happen everyday.

Second, do you have any idea how many actual people watch some of the best shows on television? “Breaking Bad” is only getting ~6 million viewers per episode in its highest rated season ever. “Modern Family,” which won best comedy, got ~12 million per episode last year. And  “The Newsroom,” which got Jeff Daniels the best actor award, scored a lovely 1.9 million for its season finale a week ago.

While “Modern Family’s” 12 million is certainly very respectable, it fails in comparison to the ratings of yesteryear, and the NFL would go into panic if one of its major primetime games ever had so few viewers. The falling audiences only speak to the further fragmentation of the entertainment television audience. Much like newspapers saw a decrease in purchases as the internet exploded, its possible that the fragmentation of television shows spells the death of some networks and the preponderance of more Netflixes.

Third, while a lot of the award-winning shows showcased last night exemplify why we are indeed in the golden age of TV content, many of them are short-lived. Breaking Bad is going away after 5 seasons. “Game of Thrones” is just three seasons in. “Mad Men,” while having completed 6 seasons, is far from reaching 100 episodes and is certainly nearing its end. And “Modern Family,” continues to be somewhat of an outlier among the great shows, as it enters its 5th season with 96 episodes in its rear view mirror.

What happened to shows going on for years and with episode counts of 120, 130 and 140? What happened to Dallas (13 seasons), NYPD Blue (12), MASH & Cheers (11), and Friends, Law & Order, and Murphy Brown all going 10 seasons? Those were some of the great shows, and they had sustainability. Now, the best shows are going just 6 and 7 seasons deep, even in this so-called “golden era” of television. What gives with the lack of longevity?

Well, fourth, part of what gives are the aggregators of the content. No longer is it ABC, CBS and NBC trying to recoup early investments in shows by extending programs as long as possible. Instead, it is now HBO, Showtime and AMC, who put up minimal investments in early seasons of a show, jack up rights fees when they get a slate of hits; thereby, affording themselves to the ability to be affordable much earlier on in the TV show cycle. Thus, when a cable show hits its 5th season, and the profits are dwindling, it becomes much more lucrative to find the next “Breaking Bad” then it is to stick with the current one.

Last but not least, it’s clear that broadcast television is just out of the loop. Save for the aforementioned “Modern Family,” what is broadcast television accomplishing these days? The best dramas are on cable. Many of the best reality shows are on cable. Many of our favorite sporting events are on cable. And let’s not forget that some of broadcast’s success stem from the proliferation of online viewing; “Modern Family,” “Scandal” and “The Big Bang Theory” not to be excluded. Much like my local newspaper, if I can get more accessible, more plentiful and mo’ better content from a more fragmented source with more options, aren’t I going to do that?

Again, I’m not coming to any ridiculous conclusions. We’ve known for a long time that online video was coming to take TV’s throne eventually. What we didn’t know until this year with “House of Cards,” “Orange is the New Black” and last night’s Emmys is that the studios and creators know that online video is not just the future, it’s part of what is fueling the golden age of television. Perhaps it shouldn’t be called that anymore. With HBOGo, ShoGo, Amazon Instant and Netflix in the mix, perhaps the golden age is really just a golden facade, being superimposed on a screen by a much higher and more powerful force: online viewers like you and me.

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