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The Emmy Awards: Has Cable Raised the Bar?

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Since HBO became an Emmy powerhouse several years ago, there has been a tension between broadcast and cable networks. This year’s host Seth Meyers even referred to the irony of the Emmy Awards telecast always airing on broadcast networks, while handing out statue after statue to cable series, movies and minis.Fargo Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton

The tension has intensified, at least my opinion, as it’s no longer only HBO and other premium cable networks producing the best in television, but basic cable–commercials and all–notably FX and AMC joining the competition. I have often said that the awards should be separated into cable and broadcast categories, which would give the big four non-cable networks a chance to garner more awards. It’s not fair, I’ve said, to classify the more free-wheeling, less advertising-dependent cable networks with both the censorship and ratings/advertising-dependent broadcast nets.

But I’ve changed my mind. I think what’s happened over the years is that HBO’s success at attracting feature-film worthy projects with feature film creative teams and onscreen talent has upped the ante, and the result has been this wonderful new Golden Age of television. Sure HBO, and to a lesser degree, Showtime have been, for years, giving their subscribers excellent programming–daring (even experimental), with little need for self-censorship, and little fear of advertiser retribution.

But look what’s happening now! AMC gave birth to Mad Men and Breaking Bad (OK, so it missed the mark by prematurely canceling Rubicon, for which I’ll never forgive the network). Then FX, which had been most known for syndicating old Fox series has become over the last couple of years the best network that isn’t HBO. Like AMC, there are commercials, but also AMC (perhaps more so), it’s presenting some of the very best in television, most recently Fargo, Tyrant, The Bridge, and Guillermo del Toro’s new sci-fi horror series The Strain. And then there’s History, which airs the blockbuster hit historical drama Vikings, created by the brilliant Michael Hirst (Tudors).

Even TNT, which seems to pick series with great potential, but which then fall into predictability almost immediately. (Perception is the worst offender–a fabulous concept and terrific acting squandered in the name of procedural sameness and mediocrity.) My fervent hope is that its newest series Legends, starring the wonderful Sean Bean and created by Howard Gordon (24, Homeland) will finally break the basic cable network out of the mold. And now USA has gotten into the let’s-shoot-for-the-stars act (although it’s always had its character dramas) with its forthcoming Dig from Gideon Raff (Tyrant, Homeland), and starring Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter).

Netflix, with its fabulous House of Cards, and even Amazon as it, too, enters the world of short-form series television have made a huge impact, not only on the overall quality of television, but the way we consume it.

In so many ways, with its ability to explore detailed narratives over eight or ten episodes with novel-like detail, this new short-form series television model has created this new Golden Age of television. Creators can do so much more, and so much more immediately for the viewer, with 10 hours than with a two-hour movie. No wonder television is becoming a more fertile ground than feature film for storytelling, attracting big-name talent both in front of and behind the screen.


The broadcast networks seem to have taken notice, though more slowly than the basic cable crowd. The result has been series like Hannibal on NBC. Right now, Hannibal is a bit of an anomaly. Graphic, intense and with few punches pulled in the name of ratings and advertisers, Bryan Fuller’s retelling of Robert Harris’s novel Red Dragon (and by extension the Hannibal Lecter films) is the best thing on broadcast television. It is beautifully written, and its production values would put to shame many a feature film. The acting, too, is superlative. Stunningly, neither of the lead actors, Mads Mikelson (Hannibal Lecter) nor Hugh Dancy (Will Graham) were nominated for Emmys this year. But for many, the series is barely on the radar: a short season and low ratings (even pulled entirely from some markets!). In many ways, Hannibal would be perfect for HBO or FX and NBC should be commended for its bravery in giving sustained life to the show.

But its placement on the primetime broadcast schedule may foretell a more courageous future for broadcast. If it does, the entire paradigm for primetime will be upended (at least in the 10:00 p.m. hour), and the uber-dominant HBO may find itself playing on an much more level playing field.

So, Emmys, don’t change, keep up the pressure; it will continue to elevate the entire industry. May the Golden Age extend to the broadcast networks and last a generation!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • bliffle

    Huh? I have NO cable and NO satellite, and I don’t watch commercial TV OTA except rarely. I watch OTA non-commercial TV and it’s the best!Between PBS and several foreign outlets the non-commercial networks make the cheap glossy commercial programs seem drab and derivative.

    Nothing on commercial TV compares to the steady stream of informative and interesting science programs on PBS.

    Crappy derivative comedies are still imitating “Absolutely Fabulous”.

    Junk like “NCIS” and “CSI” are waaaay behind “Montalbano” and “Foyles War” for intrigue and interest.

    Trash music such as “Idol” are left in the dust by “KPOP”, “Classic Arts Showcase”, etc. Where else could you see Bryn Trefl, Audra Mcdonald and Emma Thompson and “Sweeney Todd” from The Met?

    And you don’t have to forfeit one-third of your viewing time to watching obnoxious commercials for overpriced products you don’t want!

    And there are more interesting new programs, since your viewing isn’t dictated by relentless monopolies! The other night I found a terrific soap opera, better than “Dallas” and suitable for grown men, on a foreign-language local channel.

    Dump your cable! Ditch the satellite! Pay your membership at local public TV and Radio stations and enjoy better entertainment, news and information on non-commercial TV.

    Try it. You’ll like it.

    • http://blogcritics.org/writers/barbara-barnett Barbara Barnett

      I watch PBS all the time, Bliffle. That wasn’t my point. In fact the best shows on television have followed the British model that often feeds PBS offerings: Fewer episodes, anthologizing, using great acting, writing, and directing talent. That’s how you get the True Detectives, the Fargos, etc.