HBO Remains the Network to Beat

As the Emmy Awards race kicks into gear this month with nominations voting, one of the big questions is whether the likes of FX, AMC or Netflix can wrench some statuettes away from HBO. Another is whether the broadcast networks can wedge their way back into the big categories with entries such as Fox’s Empire or NBC’s Blindspot on the drama side and The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and CBS’ Mom in comedies.

Amid HBO’s current period of executive and showrunner instability (specifically, the exits of longtime programming chief Michael Lombardo and Vinyl showrunner Terence Winter), it’s easy to forget that 2015 was an Emmy high point for the premium channel. The network won all of the major categories in a sweep that was momentous even by HBO’s gold-encrusted standards. In its fifth season, Game of Thrones was finally named outstanding drama. Veep, for which star Julia Louis-Dreyfus has won best actress in a comedy four years in a row, upset ABC’s Modern Family for outstanding comedy. The political farce robbed Modern Family of its chance to become the winningest series ever with six trophies, although in 2016 the sitcom should get another chance.

HBO’s Olive Kitteridge—starring Frances McDormand, also named best actress in a limited series—swept the increasingly competitive limited-series category last year, and Bessie, starring Queen Latifah, was named top TV movie.

This year, expect HBO to again compete in all of those categories. But the network that originated the strategy of leveraging Emmy wins in the marketing of shows and wooing of talent faces competition.

Drama is not likely to be the category where competition is the stiffest. In Season 6, Game of Thrones shows no sign of slowing down, and no other series on television can really compete with it in terms of pure scope.

Game of Thrones is always in a prime position, because its episodes air just as Emmy voters will be considering their ballots in the spring, and the show is often a triumph of special effects, spectacle, plotting and carefully planned performances,” Eric Deggans, NPR TV critic, said via email. “This season is another lesson in bringing movie-level production and scale to the extended storytelling TV allows.”

Two relative newcomers—USA’s Mr. Robot, which will air its second season this summer (after the close of the 2016 eligibility period) and AMC’s Better Call Saul, which was nominated last year and recently completed its second season—are likely drama nominees.

“If content is the sole or largest factor, then I think USA’s Mr. Robot has a chance,” said Deggans. “It’s first season may be a bit of a distant memory for some Emmy voters, but the show’s reality-bending plot twists and innovative story lines—on USA, no less!—live up to the best that Emmy attempts to honor.”

Another likely entry is Netflix’s House of Cards, with leading man Kevin Spacey a favorite for best actor, especially with Breaking Bad’s three-time winner Bryan Cranston and Mad Men’s Jon Hamm out of the mix. PBS’ Downton Abbey, which ended its run this season, is a sentimental favorite among Emmy period pieceniks, and Showtime’s Homeland, which won for its rookie season, is back in the conversation.

The drama field could also include Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, nominated in 2015 in this category after Academy rules changed, and FX’s critically beloved The Americans, which thus far has largely been ignored by voters.

Among comedies, Veep is still in a solid position to repeat as best comedy, and star Louis-Dreyfus should be in contention for Emmy No. 6 in her profanity-laden turn as President Selina Meyer. The show is still “cleverly written and acted, already has massive awards cred, and it’s not at all harmed by the fact this is [a] political year,” said critic Jay Bobbin, nationally syndicated writer at Gracenote, formerly Tribune Media Services.

While no one denies that Veep is a leading contender for the comedy win, many critics B&C contacted by email seem to be leaning toward ABC’s black-ish, which just wrapped its sophomore season.

“This is black-ish’s to lose—the moment’s right, the show is good, the topicality has been there,” said Newsday’s Verne Gay. Comedy, he added, “is an interesting category this year—Catastrophe might sneak in, or Love, Master of None, maybe Carmichael Show too. But I really think black-ish is The One.”

Amazon has several shows in the mix with Golden Globe winners Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle, Globe nominee Casual and Catastrophe. Netflix has Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Asiz Ansari’s Master of None.

Other comedy options include HBO’s Silicon Valley, nominated last year, and HBO’s Girls, which has been nominated before but not in 2015. In addition to ABC’s Modern Family and black-ish, the broadcast networks have past winner (and massively rated) The Big Bang Theory; Mom (like Big Bang, on CBS); and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW.

The limited-series category is particularly competitive this year, with FX fielding three strong entries. First among these is American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. O.J. should see nominations in the series and several acting categories. Had it not been for O.J., season two of FX’s Fargo would likely be considered a shoo-in to win. And FX’s American Horror Story—which like O.J. is executive produced by Ryan Murphy—has been nominated each of the four seasons it’s aired.

HBO, meanwhile, seems to have only one possible entry in the limited series category: Show Me a Hero, starring Oscar Isaacs. While the David Simon-produced miniseries about a 1990s public housing project in Yonkers, N.Y., garnered some critical acclaim, it wasn’t widely watched and got nothing close to the buzz of O.J.

Other possibilities in the category are History’s remake of Roots and ABC’s second season of American Crime, starring Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton. AMC’s The Night Manager offers a well-crafted story and star power with Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie.

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.