The Big Four networks haven’t won the category in 12 years, since Fox’s ’24’ took the trophy.
In 2017, the rookie season of This Is Us — a primetime family drama that was embraced by critics (90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (14.8 million viewers per episode, second only to CBS’ Bull among network dramas) — represented a beacon of hope not just for NBC but also for its broadcast siblings, ABC, CBS and Fox. It had been six years since a network show was nominated for the best drama series Emmy (CBS’ The Good Wife) and 11 since one had won (Fox’s 24). And with the networks’ drama slates increasingly dominated by formulaic procedurals as cable and streaming services were churning out a flood of inventive alternatives, the Big Four had no other serious prospects.
In the end, This Is Us did land a nomination — but lost to Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the first show from a streaming service to win a series honor, drama or otherwise. Did that result mark a final changing of the guard in the drama series category? Or can This Is Us — or some other network drama — seriously compete? That question is on the minds of many as Hollywood heads into this year’s nomination voting period.
This Is Us is once again the networks’ best hope, but there also is another real possibility this cycle: ABC’s breakout drama The Good Doctor, which isn’t quite as well-reviewed but is comparably popular. It began rolling out in September with a Monday pilot that proved to be ABC’s most watched in 21 years; its first season was the network’s highest rated in 13; it was the most watched series in the 10 p.m. slot — new or returning, on any network — in 11; and it finished as the season’s most watched new drama.
But while network dramas often still attract more viewers than those on cable or streaming, the very ways in which they do so might also be what’s keeping them from resonating with the TV Academy.
For the Emmys’ first 50 years, nothing but shows from the Big Four (or one of their local affiliates) and occasionally PBS (or its predecessor NET), was ever nominated for best drama series. But during the subsequent two decades, the broadcast outlets have slowly but surely been pushed out of that category. In 1999, a cable show broke in for the first time, and in 2004, one won (in both cases, HBO’s The Sopranos). By 2012, for the first time, but not the last, not a single Big Four show was even nominated. The deck against the broadcasters was further stacked a year later when a streaming series was nominated for the first time (Netflix’s House of Cards) and in 2017 when The Handmaid’s Tale prevailed.
However, network dramas are on the verge of Emmy extinction not just because there are now so many other content providers in the game but also because those other content providers better cater to 2018 audiences’ desires and expectations. While there is no upfront fee for broadcast network programming, there is still a “price” to be paid for it: Subject to standards and practices, the Big Four cannot say or show things that other platforms can; dependent on ads, programming is constantly interrupted, necessitating constant re-exposition; and in need of as many viewers as possible in order to sell those ads for as much as possible, the networks generally provide content that is objectionable to the fewest number of people. In short, particularly on the drama side, broadcast fare tends to feel dumbed down and edgeless.
Unfortunately for the Big Four, Americans’ appetite for mature and edgy material began to soar just as cable and streaming were coming into their own. By the turn of the century, watercooler discussions were centering not on last night’s episode of insert-a-show-here — partly because everybody was increasingly watching different things — but on sex (e.g., the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal) and violence (e.g., 9/11). We lost our innocence, but, for a while, Emmy voters still found the edge they were looking for on the Big Four — again, 24 won best drama series in 2006. Before long, though, even the Big Four’s top-tier offerings failed to meet viewers’ needs — which, in the ADD era, also include economy. 24 was also the last winner comprising more than 13 episodes; shorter seasons tend to sustain quality better and are more binge-able.
If, in 2007, when Big Four shows accounted for four of five drama series slots, you had told a network TV exec that in 11 years the Big Four would be lucky to snag one of seven slots, you’d probably have been laughed out of the room. But that’s how fast change is happening in TV. No perch is safe.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.Emmy Awards Emmy Awards Emmy Awards