Beyond the seven "primetime" Emmys for Amazon Prime Video and the four for Netflix, the looming role of streaming media permeated the least-watched Emmy telecast in history on Sunday. Let's start with the commercials for yet-to-debut Apple TV+ and Disney+, both eagerly awaited by digerati but barely on the radar of most video watchers. At least the Disney+ commercial teased the library of Mouse House classics plus the other brands (Marvel, Lucasfilm, etc.) that Disney has absorbed.
Even the commercials for existing over-the-top services, such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video raised questions about the outlook for this competitive category of content. A Netflix ad promoted the forthcoming El Camino, a spinoff of Breaking Bad. While that Emmy-winning series ran originally on the AMC cable network (as did its earlier spinoff Better Call Saul), "El Camino" is not only a Netflix original, but the two-hour movie will open simultaneously on Oct. 11 in movie theaters, hence qualifying it for Oscar contention.
If nothing else, the move from AMC to Netflix is a (hoped-for) indication that viewers will follow the show, not the platform on which it appears.
Meanwhile, the so-called "Primetime Emmys" skirted a more fundamental conundrum. Since the streaming programs can be viewed on-demand at whatever hour is "prime" for an individual, the term - a legacy of broadcasting's evening hours - is increasingly irrelevant in modern life.
Is Everything Old Really New Again?
Just before the Emmy telecast, a series of published reports pointed out that many of the streaming TV juggernauts (with the exception of Apple TV+) are spending heavily on old (or ancient) broadcast TV series. Reportedly Netflix has bought Seinfeld streaming rights for $500 million; Comcast/NBC's new "Peacock" service will pay a comparable sum for The Office; and WarnerMedia's HBO Max is paying $600 million for 279 episodes of The Big Bang Theory.
"Big Bang" will also run on WarnerMedia's TBS linear network during its HBO Max availability. Of course, for Comcast and WarnerMedia, it means moving funds from one corporate pocket to another.
Yet skeptics rightly wonder if these prices are right for shows which have already lived through years of syndication. Will they really attract viewers to the streaming platforms - or even bring in a next generation of audiences as youngsters age into the users of the technology?
Will any of the shows have the perennial appeal of I Love Lucy? Or will they merely look dated?
Some cynics also question whether quirky Seinfeld is now worth more than double what TBS paid for the same show ($200 million) in the late 1990s.
It all comes down to the unknown question of how much is too much "repeatability"?
These challenges about the value of old TV shows take on great meaning in the context of the Emmycast, which is all about new and original programs.
When several of the Emmy presenters pontificated about today's "platinum age" of television (the "golden age" isn't bright enough anymore), they were alluding to the creativity and range of the vast line-up of streaming content. Of course, cable's contribution to the creative age is significant, based on the number of creative Emmys to HBO, National Geographic, CNN and others. But Netflix gleaned almost as many trophies as HBO, and Hulu's tally (three) was equal to VH1, FX and Sundance.
Perhaps most significantly for the so called Primetime Emmys, among the aging broadcast networks, only NBC won any awards - and they were both for Saturday Night Live, which runs in a timeslot that pushes the meaning of "primetime."
A Lot of Progress in Six Years Plus ACEs and Old Jokes
The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS) only allowed streaming video into the Emmy competition in 2013, so the sizeable showing (nominations as well as actual awards) demonstrates a remarkable growth - and recognition about what viewers want to watch.
It brought back memories of the Cable ACE Awards ("Award for Cable Excellence," which became redundant with the extended acronym). The cable industry created the ACEs in 1978, and they survived until 1997, after ATAS finally bowed to reality and allowed made-for-cable programs into its Emmy competition.
And that brought to mind another recent concept bouncing around Hollywood with no obvious support. As the walls between cinema and television crumble even further, why have separate Oscar and Emmy awards? Maybe the Golden Globes has it right: a glam party where trophies for all types of media are handed out. Of course, the film vs. television infrastructure won't allow such a cross-platform statuette-fest. Yet.
So let's see what El Camino and its multiple distribution successors do to that model?
All the promises and blather during the Emmycast - especially in the vague promotional commercials for upcoming streaming services - reminded me of a sexist, almost-dirty "joke" that was heard often during the 1970s. Its set-up was about a mission not accomplished, and the punchline was, "He was a cable franchise promoter, and all he did was talk all night about how great things were going to be."
Amid the hype and bravura of the Emmy show, I could only wonder about the future of television, especially how great it's going to be.
Let's acknowledge that the next wave of TV - platforms, distribution, content - will not necessarily resemble the past 70 years in which ATAS gloried on Sunday night. The awkward introductory remarks by Bryan Cranston lauded TV's history and bright future.
“Television has never been bigger; television has never mattered more; and television has never been this damn good," Cranston intoned properly from his script.
But I couldn't help thinking that the actor was selected for this speech because of his recent portrayal of Howard Beale."the mad prophet of the airways," in the Broadway adaptation of the ever-more credible 1977 movie "Network."
And in that film, the mad-as-hell Howard Beale character (played by Oscar-winner Peter Finch) offered an even more impassioned and sobering outlook of what television will become.
Ultimately, it's all about "the promises" and will they be fulfilled.
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