Stream of change

Em­mys em­brace Ama­zon, Net­flix se­ries

SundayXtra - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Scott Collins

LOS AN­GE­LES — Tonight will be TV’s big­gest night, with for­mally at­tired celebri­ties am­bling through the fa­mil­iar red-car­pet gaunt­let at the 67th Prime­time Emmy Awards.

But this won’t be the same old Em­mys. Af­ter years of com­plaints of staid and pre­dictable vot­ing, the Em­mys have fi­nally caught up with the changes shak­ing up the TV busi­ness. Trans­par­ent is Ex­hibit A. An off­beat com­edy about a mid­dle-aged dad (Jeffrey Tam­bor) who comes out as trans­gen­der to his adult kids, Trans­par­ent has a premise that could risk alien­at­ing the tra­di­tional-minded, even in a year when Cait­lyn Jen­ner cap­tured head­lines.

In fact, it’s not a tra­di­tional TV se­ries in any sense. It by­passes the typ­i­cal broad­cast and ca­ble plat­forms and is made and dis­trib­uted on-de­mand by Ama­zon, the same online mega-re­tailer that ships books, di­a­pers and count­less other prod­ucts.

And yet Trans­par­ent is also one of this year’s most­nom­i­nated shows, with 11 to­tal nods and, in a for­mi­da­ble new ver­sus old matchup, is squar­ing off against peren­nial win­ner Mod­ern Fam­ily for best com­edy.

The ABC sit­com has tri­umphed at the awards show for the last five years, and another vic­tory would set a new record in the cat­e­gory. But within the in­dus­try, there is a sense the cre­ative mo­men­tum has shifted to more off-beat, un­usual shows — in­clud­ing the kind of shows pro­lif­er­at­ing on stream­ing out­lets such as Ama­zon Prime and Net­flix.

“Au­di­ences are still much larger for net­work- orig­i­nated shows, but the shows on stream­ing ser­vices have the at­ten­tion of the en­ter­tain­ment es­tab­lish­ment,” said Jeffrey McCall, a media stud­ies pro­fes­sor at DePauw Univer­sity in In­di­ana. “Non-net­work shows can be edgier, bawdier and take more risks than the ma­jor net­works can, and the Emmy peo­ple want to re­ward that.

“This is in some ways a so­cio-cul­tural state­ment, but it is also a state­ment about where the cre­ative world wants to take the video in­dus­try,” he added.

Many ex­perts see a grow­ing two-tier sys­tem, much like the one that op­er­ates in the movie busi­ness, where Os­cars are more likely to go to art-house favourites than sum­mer block­busters. Michael Keaton’s Bird­man, this year’s best pic­ture win­ner at the Os­cars, grossed about US$42 mil­lion at the U.S. box of­fice. Mean­while, Amer­i­can Sniper took in US$350 mil­lion, fol­lowed by Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 at US$337 mil­lion.

“When you look at the Em­mys, they’re no longer about what the pop­u­lar masses like,” said Bil­lie Gold, vi­cepres­i­dent and di­rec­tor of TV pro­gram­ming re­search at ad firm Carat. “It’s more about if you have top ac­tors do­ing these re­ally in­ter­est­ing roles, with multi-di­men­sional char­ac­ters... ( With) main­stream tele­vi­sion, you’re try­ing to ap­peal to the masses.”

When com­mer­cial TV con­sisted of just three broad­cast net­works, the Em­mys of­ten hon­oured what was con­sid­ered not just good but pop­u­lar. All in the Fam­ily, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Cheers, Se­in­feld and Frasier were hon­oured with top Em­mys. And they were huge hits in the rat­ings as well.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, Emmy vot­ers would nur­ture an arty, an­tipop­ulist bent. Back in the 1970s, for ex­am­ple, the best drama prize went three times to Up­stairs, Down­stairs, a BBC pe­riod piece about aris­to­crats and their ser­vants that ran in the U.S. on PBS. As the Down­ton Abbey of its time, Up­stairs, Down­stairs was not nearly as well-liked as the cop shows it aired against, such as Baretta and Starsky & Hutch.

In 1981, a sur­prise win for the NBC cop drama Hill Street Blues — which had been lan­guish­ing in the rat­ings but was con­sid­ered one of the best-writ­ten shows on TV — res­cued the show and helped turn it into a hit.

But dur­ing the last decade, as broad­cast for­tunes have ebbed and other providers have leaped in, the Em­mys have re­flected the trend.

In 2001, HBO’s ur­ban romp Sex and the City be­came the first ca­ble se­ries to win the top com­edy Emmy; three years later, HBO’s New Jersey mob epic The So­pra­nos set a mile­stone with the first best drama Emmy for a ca­ble net­work. HBO is a pre­mium net­work the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans do not even sub­scribe to, although So­pra­nos de­liv­ered rat­ings that would to­day be the envy of ABC, CBS or NBC.

The vic­tory for So­pra­nos cleared the path for AMC’s ad-agency pe­riod drama Mad Men, which took the top Emmy for four years in a row de­spite small au­di­ences watch­ing in real-time.

“Mad Men’s rat­ings, I hate to say, were not very good,” Gold said. “There were lucky if they got two mil­lion view­ers an episode... But peo­ple, es­pe­cially those in the media, love that show.”

Once the in­dus­try ac­cepted the idea of giv­ing top hon­ours to what were es­sen­tially niche pro­grams, the stream­ing play­ers were ripe for con­sid­er­a­tion, de­spite the fact no one out­side the com­pa­nies has any re­li­able data on view­er­ship. Net­flix, Ama­zon and Hulu view­ing fig­ures are not widely pub­lished, but Nielsen this year has ramped up a pi­lot pro­gram that is de­signed to cap­ture tal­lies of peo­ple watch­ing streamed shows. How­ever, Net­flix has ar­gued the fig­ures are flawed be­cause they do not count peo­ple who watch on phones and tablets.

Or­ange Is the New Black is a case in point. A dark com­edy set in a women’s prison, the Net­flix show has gen­er­ated enor­mous media cov­er­age and a ded­i­cated fan base, not to men­tion a nom­i­na­tion last year in the best com­edy cat­e­gory — and another this year for best drama. (The se­ries switched cat­e­gories af­ter a re­cent Emmy rule change ad­dressed the blur­ring lines be­tween com­plex dra­mas and comedies.)

But ex­actly how large that fan base is, at the mo­ment, im­pos­si­ble to gauge.

“We don’t re­ally know what the num­bers are,” Gold said. “Net­flix can tell us some num­bers, but we don’t know if it’s sub­stan­ti­ated. The thing is, if they get two to three mil­lion view­ers, that’s huge for them, but it wouldn’t be a hit on net­work tele­vi­sion.”

But ex­perts ex­pect shows will con­tinue to dom­i­nate come Emmy time as the in­dus­try slides away from a sched­uled broad­cast model in favour of streamed pro­grams that can be viewed when­ever users want.

One such show that won over Emmy vot­ers is Net­flix’s Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt, which snagged seven nom­i­na­tions, in­clud­ing one for best com­edy se­ries. The Tina Fey-pro­duced com­edy about a young woman who moves to New York af­ter es­cap­ing from a cult was orig­i­nally de­vel­oped for NBC but wound up on the stream­ing ser­vice, where it pre­mièred to ac­claim.

“We are mov­ing to­ward a video- on-de­mand en­vi­ron­ment,” said Brad Adgate, an­a­lyst for New York ad firm Hori­zon Media. “It’s be­gun al­ready with younger adults and will grow to­ward view­ers in their late 30s and 40s this sea­son.”

As more peo­ple sub­scribe to stream­ing ser­vices, the com­pa­nies con­tinue to ramp up pro­duc­tion with the river of rev­enue. About 43 per cent of U.S. house­holds get Net­flix, while 42 per cent have HBO.

“That means peo­ple are in­ter­ested in that (Net­flix) con­tent and are ac­tu­ally pay­ing US$8.99 a month to get it,” said Gold.

Net­flix and Ama­zon both re­cently an­nounced plans to step up orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming, ef­fec­tively mak­ing them di­rect com­peti­tors with ma­jor Hol­ly­wood stu­dios such as Warner Bros. and Fox. All that could mean a Trans­par­ent fu­ture. Re­leased by Ama­zon last year, Trans­par­ent won praise from crit­ics if not nec­es­sar­ily much at­ten­tion from or­di­nary view­ers. But the show’s pro­file rose ear­lier this year as Jen­ner’s gen­der tran­si­tion grabbed head­lines and sparked cu­rios­ity.

From that stand­point, stream­ing providers may have only scratched the sur­face in terms of what can be dra­ma­tized for a TV se­ries. And this year’s Em­mys prove top in­dus­try ac­claim can fol­low, no mat­ter how lim­ited the au­di­ence.

“They’re look­ing for re­ally hard-hit­ting so­cial is­sues... push­ing the en­ve­lope,” Gold said. “And that at­tracts a cer­tain kind of viewer.”

‘When you look at the Em­mys, they’re no longer about what the pop­u­lar masses like’

BETH DUB­BER / AMA­ZON STU­DIOS

Amy Lan­decker (left) and Jeffrey Tam­bor in a scene from Trans­par­ent. The Ama­zon Prime se­ries is nom­i­nated for 11 Emmy Awards, in­clud­ing out­stand­ing com­edy se­ries.

ERIC LIEBOWITZ / NET­FLIX

Ti­tuss Burgess and El­lie Kem­per star in Un­break­able Kimmy Sch­midt on Net­flix.

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