At last night’s Emmy Awards, Netflix failed to score wins in any of the major categories: “House of Cards” lost to “Breaking Bad.” Kevin Spacey lost to Bryan Cranston. “Orange is the New Black” lost to “Modern Family.” And long-shot Ricky Gervais of “Derek” lost to the “Big Bang Theory’s” Jim Parsons. The streaming site did pick up seven wins at last week’s Creative Arts Emmys, but few outside the industry will pay much attention to that.
Of course, a number of writers have commented on Netflix’s disappointing evening, with the silliest headline courtesy of Quartz: “Emmy voters just did something that the networks couldn’t—stop Netflix.”
I guess you could put it that way. But I doubt CEO Reed Hastings or anyone else at Netflix is sweating last night’s shut out, and here’s a few reasons why.
First, to paraphrase many a spurned nominee, “It’s an honor just to be nominated.” Netflix picked up 31 nominations in total, while shows from Netflix’s streaming competitors Hulu and Amazon failed to be recognized in any way. This proves just how difficult it is for tech companies to produce high-quality television, and yet somehow Netflix has pulled it off where others have not.
Secondly, of all the winners of the twenty biggest categories at the Emmys, nine of them are available to watch on Netflix right now, including “Breaking Bad,” “American Horror Story,” “Louie,” and “Sherlock.” In fact Netflix is the only place most Americans can watch “Sherlock” without buying the individual episodes.
As for “Breaking Bad,” the night’s biggest winner, where do you think newcomers to the show will head to catch up? Their cable television provider? And wait around for AMC to play a marathon then DVR it? Or sign up for Netflix and binge-watch every last episode until their eyes bleed? Sure, they’ll have to wait for the latest seasons of “Louie,” and certainly television shows are removed from the service all the time as deals are struck and severed. But from “Parks and Recreation” to “Mad Men” (which, not to troll, but should have taken home the Best Drama statuette), there’s no shortage of contemporary award-worthy television on Netflix.
And finally, awards do not always correlate with viewership. “Breaking Bad,” while among AMC’s critical darlings, isn’t close to the network’s most popular show. That honor goes to the less awards-friendly “Walking Dead.”
But speaking of viewership, a major difference between Netflix and television networks is that Netflix doesn’t need its shows to have mainstream appeal per se. Speaking at last May’s Code conference, CEO Reed Hastings said that many viewers abandoned “House of Cards” following the brutal dog-killing scene at the beginning of the first episode. But instead of taking that data and saying, “Whoa, let’s cut back on the dog-killing you guys,” Hastings let the writers continue to drive the storytelling — after all, that’s what they do best. The value the data provides is in showing which viewers are willing to put up with a protagonist of their favorite show killing a dog and which are not, so that Netflix can target these users accordingly.
Or as Sarah Lacy put it, “Data shouldn’t serve to make content that absolutely everyone will love. It should be used to find the exact people that an excellent — even offensive or edgy — piece of content will love. This is why Netflix is killing it on content and Amazon isn’t.”
To be honest, Netflix has to worry more about HBO GO than traditional networks. Sure, Netflix is growing faster and has a stronger infrastructure underlying its streaming technology (for many customers, HBO GO was out for hours after the “True Detective” finale went up). But HBO has plenty of cash to strike deals with ISPs like Netflix has in order to improve performance. (Net Neutrality proponents will grumble, but at least we get to watch “Game of Thrones”).
Producing great television, on the other hand, can’t be accomplished by simply throwing money at the problem. Just look at AMC — Although “Walking Dead” is still going strong, “Breaking Bad” is over, “Mad Men” is a half-season away from bowing out, and its newer offerings have yet to catch on with critics and audiences in a major way. And while Netflix has blown away expectations with “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black,” building on that success is easier said than done. HBO has already proven time and time again that when a big series ends, there’s another one (or two or three) just around the corner.
The one thing Netflix certainly doesn’t have to worry about is losing a bunch of awards at last night’s Emmys. Sure, it’s always fun to beat the old guard at their own game, but that doesn’t have to be a priority for the company. This is the only second year the streaming-company-slash-production-house has contended, and even if it never snags a Best Drama award, there’s a good chance whatever show does will end up on Netflix eventually anyway.