HBO continues to dominate the Emmys, beating all other outlets this year with 19 total wins. But is the pay cable network's Emmy stranglehold on the wane?
HBO's tally was down from last year's 25 wins, and represented the channel's smallest Emmy haul since 2003 (when it won 18). And HBO won just four awards during the Primetime Emmys telecast on Sunday night, compared to eight on last year's broadcast. (It's been more than 15 years since HBO won so few during the telecast.)
Execs at the channel say they're happy with their results — and indeed, HBO's streak as Emmy's top dog shows no immediate signs of abatement. But the TV Academy's decision this year to merge the outstanding TV movies and outstanding miniseries categories — cutting one of the awards show's key awards — ultimately hurt HBO the most.
Insiders say HBO wasn't consulted when the decision was made earlier this year. Before the categories were combined, the TV movie category was a reliable Emmy win for HBO. The pay cable channel had won that category all but twice since 1993, including last year (Temple Grandin).
This year, PBS' miniseries Downton Abbey (a Masterpiece co-production with the BBC) won many of the top movie and minis prizes, including the first-ever merged outstanding movies/miniseries Emmy. But that means HBO couldn't count on those categories to bolster its Emmy count. (Adding to the sting: Because Downton Abbey is actually a continuing series, with another edition on the way, its inclusion in the movies/minis category has raised eyebrows.)
Insiders at the channel believe contenders like Too Big to Fail would have had a shot at winning a TV movie Emmy had the categories not been merged.
The decision to combine the movies and miniseries came after last year's outstanding miniseries competition wound up with just two nominees. The TV Academy has long fought "awards proliferation," with the organization making several attempts to pare back the number of statues it hands out.
But there's also a broadcast vs. cable rivalry at play. The four broadcast networks, which rotate the Emmys telecast on an annual basis, have not been thrilled with showcasing so many movies and miniseries categories. The Emmycast, they argued, had turned into a three-hour commercial for HBO.
This year, with the movies and minis category merging, they got their revenge. But that led to concerns that the TV Academy had created an unfair contest, pitting big-budget miniseries against smaller TV movies.
"To equate a miniseries like The Pacific or John Adams — where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on multiple episodes utilizing numerous directors, writers and editors — with a single movie whose budget is often less than the cost of one episode of said miniseries is extremely unbalanced," Temple Grandin editor Leo Trombetta told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this year.
Adds an HBO insider: "There are only five slots, and it ultimately hurt movies. It's apples and oranges, and (the Academy) is not acknowledging some bodies of work."
Meanwhile, HBO is also facing increased competition for Emmy gold on the series side. The channel first began grabbing top series prizes away from the broadcast networks in the late 1990s with shows like Larry Sanders. By 2004, HBO scored its most-ever Emmys (with 32 wins) thanks to The Sopranos, Deadwood and Sex and the City.
But since then, networks like FX, AMC and Showtime have taken some of HBO's playbook, securing their own big Emmy wins in many of the key series categories.
The proliferation of outlets doing original fare means that the TV Academy is spreading the Emmy wealth: In 2001, 16 networks walked away with Emmys. This year, 28 outlets (including a few websites) scored Emmys.
This year, even DirecTV pulled off a few upsets, thanks to the final season of Friday Night Lights, which won two major awards (for best drama actor Kyle Chandler and outstanding drama writing winner Jason Katims). And Reelzchannel, a previously ignored cable network, surprised the industry with four wins (thanks to The Kennedys).
HBO's biggest heartbreaker on Sunday night came at the expense of Boardwalk Empire. The Prohibition-era series, starring Steve Buscemi, had already won seven categories at the Creative Arts Emmy awards the week before. Two more wins, and Boardwalk Empire would have tied The West Wing for the most wins ever in a single year (nine, which that show won in 2000).
But Boardwalk Empire could only eke out one more win on Sunday night, for outstanding director Martin Scorsese. Boardwalk Empire was still the most-honored program of the year, with eight Emmys, but it just missed tying that best-ever record.
HBO can at least take solace in the fact that, while its Emmy tally has declined, it is still seen as a tremendous force and the network to beat. Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton, who was behind the Downton Abbey broadcast on PBS, was surprised by her wins. "It's David and Goliath," she says. "HBO has tremendous marketing and advertising muscle behind it."
Meanwhile, the broadcast networks aren't faring any better. Despite talk of a good year for the broadcast networks at the Emmys, it was really mostly a good year for one show in particular: ABC's Modern Family.
Among all broadcast network programs, only five series received more than one Emmy this year: Modern Family (5), Saturday Night Live (4), So You Think You Can Dance (3), American Idol (2) and Glee (2).