The Emmy Awards are a game.
That doesn't mean they're worthless, or meaningless, or cynical; it just means that there is high-level strategy around who gets what award and why, beyond simply who turned in the best performance. And this year in particular, we were able to see that game being played a lot more baldly than it has been in years past.
And this morning, we're able to see it played again—notice how everyone is talking about HBO's 19 Emmy awards? HBO didn't win 19 times last night, guys. HBO won three times, tying with PBS. The other 16 awards are mostly for technical stuff like makeup and cinematography, which is very important and doesn't get recognized often enough, but in terms of who dominated in categories like acting, writing and directing, which is why ABC broadcasts one set of awards and not the other, FX, AMC and CBS all outperformed HBO.
So let's take a look at said strategy, shall we?
How It's Done
One of the reasons cable TV shows split "final" seasons into two parts is so that they'll cross years and potentially end up sweeping more than one awards season. Breaking Bad did this perfectly last night—it's difficult to argue that they didn't deserve it. Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Vince Gilligan and the rest of the honorees worked on a show that is already being talked about in the same breath as The Wire and Homicide.
HBO pioneered more than daring cable content. It originated the nomination-gaming strategy, raising eyebrows and earning the consternation of broadcasters when they pulled off an unprecedented 16 nominations in 1999, including several for their brand new series, The Sopranos. It was the first time the cable world had ever landed even a single Emmy nod. This year, they got the most nominations of any network (as they have in an unbroken streak since the year after that first upset): 99.
But 15 years ago, this was a problem. Doug Herzog, then-president of Fox Entertainment, irritably told a group of reporters (including The New York Times) that "if we did that show, you guys would jump all over us," but HBO had broken in. The show managed a Best Director win for David Chase, which wouldn't be much today but was everything at the time.
HBO learned to field its players in the categories where they're most likely to win, not the categories where they make the most sense. Some of the moves make a lot of sense. True Detective? Drama, so it's not competing with its big-ticket prestige project, The Normal Heart. Peter Dinklage? Best supporting actor, despite his fairly obviously being the main character on Game of Thrones, so he's not competing with shoo-in Cranston and three other members of his network family, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson for TD, and Jeff Daniels for The Newsroom.
And some of the plays are a little harder to parse. Why put Lena Headey in the best supporting actress box? Were Juliana Margulies and Kerry Washington too fierce a challenge? Was it some other thing that only Todd VanDerWerff can explain? (Probably. That piece is excellent in its breakdown of a ridiculous process.)
It's also important to carpet-bomb voters with promotional material because, as VanDerWerff points out in the article linked above, professional film and television makers don't actually have that much time to sit down and watch television. HBO's solution has been the campaign box, a well-appointed little box set that goes out to all voters.
How It's Changed
But of course, while HBO has been racking up awards, other networks have taken notice. FX is pushing hard on shows like Fargo, Louie and American Horror Story: Coven, all of which managed to score wins last night, and the network actually edged out HBO in prime-time awards with five to the premium cable net's three (HBO's public relations blitz still dominates the technical Emmys, so they did much better in those categories).
And who doesn't like a good upset? It's hard to fathom Sherlock winning over The Normal Heart in so many categories, but HBO's valiant adaptation of a really downbeat play (albeit excellent) about the AIDS crisis may simply not have gotten as many voters to turn on their TV sets as Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.
Ultimately, networks like HBO, Netflix and FX have demonstrated that they firmly believe Emmy Awards boost sampling and subscription levels, and with an ever-more-crowded market for high-end scripted content, many newcomers and upstarts will be trying to follow that lead.
And the Winner Is
HBO, sort of, but also FX.
Top 10 Total Emmy Getters:
Primetime Emmys By Network: