News Column

Netflix Shuffles the Deck As 'Cards' Leads Emmy Nods

July 20, 2013


There's nothing shaky about "House of Cards," but the Netflix original drama is definitely on the edge of a seismic shift in the TV industry.

On Thursday, Netflix made television history -- and shocked quite a few people -- by becoming the first Internet television network to be honored with prime-time Emmy nominations in top categories -- garnering 14 nominations in all, including three for "Arrested Development" and nine for "House of Cards."

Most striking was its nod in the outstanding drama series category, where "House of Cards" joined four cable series (AMC's "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," HBO's "Game of Thrones," Showtime's "Homeland") and one British import ("Downton Abbey") that airs in the U.S. on PBS.

Not one of the nominated dramas was from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox or the CW, which adds to the perception that today's broadcast network is a proverbial house of cards, in danger of eventual collapse. To be sure, there's still lots of money being made by these mainstream networks, which can also still boast a number of creative and ratings success stories. But perception counts for a lot in show business.

TV historian Tim Brooks calls the Netflix nominations "significant." There's been growing evidence of the rise of mobile- distribution platforms, Brooks says, but this is the first official industry recognition of an online network "from a creative side." (A 2008 rule change made it possible for shows streamed via the Internet to compete in the same Emmy categories as broadcast and cable contenders.)

"I think even more important than to the shows involved -- 'House of Cards' and 'Arrested Development' -- it will do a lot for Netflix itself. Something like that being even nominated for an Emmy Award is unexpected," says Brooks, a former cable-network executive who is co-author of "The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946 to Present."

Noting how long it took the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to acknowledge cable programming -- until the 1987-88 season, cable shows were barred from Emmy consideration and had to compete in their own CableACE Awards -- Brooks says, "I was surprised that it happened [for Netflix] this soon. It took a while -- more like 15 years -- for cable to be accepted. The networks fought it and kept them out for a long time and once the wolf got in the door, of course, it started gobbling up awards everywhere. So, perhaps that was a lesson that change needs to be embraced a little more quickly."

What makes the Emmy nods for "Cards" all the more striking is that the series seemed to come out of nowhere. On Feb. 1, Netflix released all 13 episodes of the political drama, about a ruthless and cunning congressman (Oscar winner Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright), who will "stop at nothing to conquer everything." Both actors received best actor nominations as well.

For those who don't have Netflix, its showing in the Emmy nominations was no doubt an eye-opener, a sign that Netflix is not just some fringe player. Recently, actress Jessica Walter said she discovered this the first time she watched "House of Cards," so she could check out the network that had just picked up her late Fox series "Arrested Development."

"First of all, the fact that there's absolutely no commercials makes it a much more intense experience to watch a show," said Walter, who plays "Arrested" matriarch Lucille Bluth, adding that she quickly became addicted. "I really liked it. I found myself saying, 'Let me watch a couple more.' ... And then I just could not stop. I think it's a brilliant show, and it was just so satisfying. ... I had withdrawal after I saw episode 13 of 'House of Cards.' I can't wait for the next." (Season 2 is in production, but doesn't yet have a premiere date.)

According to Netflix -- which will report its second-quarter earnings on Monday -- in the first quarter of 2013, it added just over 2 million streaming subscribers (and just over 1 million international subscribers) for a total of 36 million globally -- 29.2 million of them in the U.S. That domestic figure puts Netflix ahead of HBO, which ended 2012 with 28.7 million subscribers, according to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, quoting data from SNL Kagan in April.

None of this is great news for the broadcast networks, who really took an image hit on Thursday.

Although PBS import "Downton Abbey" deservedly received seven major nominations, the commercial broadcast networks, besides the outstanding drama snub, were shut out of many dramatic categories, including lead actor, writing and directing. In the lead dramatic actress category, only two of the seven nominees (Connie Britton of "Nashville" and Kerry Washington of "Scandal") were from broadcast series.

Some notable omissions: for best drama "Elementary" (and its stars) and "The Good Wife" (and Julianna Margulies, who won best actress in 2011); Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy for "The Following"; Eamonn Walker for "Chicago Fire."

The traditional networks fared better in the comedy categories, snagging outstanding comedy nominations for NBC's late "30 Rock" (along with stars Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and Jane Krakowski), as well as "Modern Family" (along with Sofia Vergara and Julie Bowen, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ed O'Neill and Ty Burrell) and "The Big Bang Theory" (and Jim Parsons). In the acting categories, Amy Poehler ("Parks and Recreation"), Jane Lynch ("Glee"), Mayim Bialik ("The Big Bang Theory") and Bill Hader ("Saturday Night Live") were also recognized. And, not surprisingly, the networks were nominated in the reality-competition and variety series categories.

Regardless of who takes home the statuettes when the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards air on CBS on Sept. 22, one thing is clear: Netflix is already a winner.

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