Why HBO reigns supreme at Emmys

Line graph showing Emmy nominations over time
Helen Xu/Senior Staff

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Ever since the first ceremony in 1949, the Primetime Emmy Awards has served as the battleground upon which American television networks fight for sovereignty. In 1949, only four major networks — ABC, CBS, NBC and the now-defunct DuMont Television Network — squabbled with each other over which would take home the most gold statues. Seventy years later, the playing field has widened and diversified thanks to the expansion of network television and the meteoric success of internet streaming services.

Netflix’s “House of Cards” winning the Emmy for outstanding directing for a drama series in 2013 — the first time a web television series had won an Emmy — was the opening salvo in the war between streamers and traditional television networks for cultural relevance. The modern-day streaming giants Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hulu have become major players in terms of producing critically acclaimed content and amassing attention from awards shows. Conventional wisdom states that it is streaming services, rather than other older conceptions of the television network, that will go on to win the day. It’s hard to dispute this theory when looking at Netflix’s 117 Emmy nominations this year compared to NBC’s 58 and CBS’s 43.

Or it would be hard were there not one dragon-sized exception to the “streaming services shall inherit the earth” doctrine: HBO.

HBO isn’t a traditional network like NBC or a relatively new streaming service like Netflix; it’s managed to straddle the line between these two models and adapt to the changing television landscape. Starting off as a subscription-based channel that boasted “premium” content in 1972, HBO cultivated a reputation as a home for prestige television that has endured into the modern age. In 2015, HBO launched its streaming service, HBO Now, which allowed the network to directly compete with Netflix for consumers; the channel’s other online service, HBO Go, is available to consumers who are subscribed through standard television providers. HBO’s ability to showcase its content through multiple avenues of television distribution, both modern and traditional, has allowed the network to maintain its prominence in a way that few other industry veterans have in the age of streaming.

It’s this adaptability that has, in part, solidified HBO as the only platform that can compete with Netflix — the television industry’s most prominent streamer and the spectre that threatens to bury stalwart networks such as NBC and CBS. HBO garnered a stunning 137 nominations this year next to Netflix’s 117. HBO also earned the most Emmy nominations of any network in 2016 and 2017, with Netflix in second place for both those years. The latter was barely able to edge out HBO in 2018 by 4 nominations.

The continuing all-out Emmy war between Netflix and HBO reveals a fundamental discrepancy in the way the two networks handle content. In theory, Netflix should be racking up nominations left and right because of the sheer amount of content the streamer produces — Netflix is literally spending itself into a hole to crank out a ridiculous amount of original series, while HBO’s current slate of programming includes only 28 shows. Turns out that quantity and quality are the rarest of bedfellows, and based on this year’s Emmy nominations, the Television Academy concurs.

Aside from the gargantuan 32 nominations earned by “Game of Thrones,” an impressive range of HBO shows demonstrated a consistent presence across categories: “Barry” and “Veep” cleaned up in the comedy arena, “Chernobyl” and “Sharp Objects” represented the network in the outstanding limited series category, and even cult-favorite “Succession” found its way into the running for outstanding drama series.

It’s a dominant showing that Netflix, even with its seemingly endless flow of new programming, couldn’t manage to match, as its most-nominated contender was “When They See Us” at 16 nominations alongside “Russian Doll” at 13 and “Ozark” at 9. The critical response to HBO this awards season proves that indiscriminately producing television series may very well earn you a massive number of nominations — probability is, after all, on your side — but it will not earn you the crown (or, more appropriately, the Iron Throne).

HBO’s willingness to take risks when it comes to unique narrative ideas — for instance, the elevator pitch of “a hitman who wants to be an actor” — and a commitment to quality programming has allowed it to snag an abundance of nominations for a relatively small lineup of eligible series. And while the absence of long-standing successes “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” may very well hinder the network next year, HBO’s model of premium content paired with its ability to function as both a traditional cable network and a streaming service will continue to give it an awards season edge for years to come (see you at the 2020 Emmys, Zendaya!)

HBO has managed to single-handedly stave off the ascension of streaming services at the Primetime Emmy Awards, acting as the lone bastion of traditional television against an influx of programming that’s specifically engineered to be binge-watched. And if Netflix wants to break up HBO’s stranglehold on prestige programming, the streaming service needs to stop spending so sporadically and start churning out more focused, creative content. Otherwise, it’s going to end up in the same quandary that other television networks have been in since 2013 — eating dust and desperately trying to catch up.

Grace Orriss is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].