Let me start by saying this — I am not a fan of “Orange is the New Black.” I don’t think it deserved to win Outstanding Comedy Series at the Primetime Emmys, especially when running against “Veep” (and when it should have been battling “Parks and Recreation”). The show is loose in a way my structured writer’s mind can’t seem to appreciate. It’s not funny enough to be entertaining as a comedy, and its dramatic arcs seem trivial.
Yet when the presenter of Outstanding Comedy Series read “Modern Family” instead of “Orange is the New Black” Monday night, I was crushed.
“Orange is the New Black” isn’t wholly a drama and it certainly isn’t a through-and-through comedy. It’s a unique mix of both, and thanks to the Emmys’ questionable category qualifications, it was eligible for Outstanding Comedy Series in the 2014 competition. Not that it mattered, seeing as “Modern Family” took home the trophy Monday night, beating out untraditional comedies like “Orange is the New Black” and “Veep.” But Jenji Kohan’s whatever-you-want-to-call-it shouldn’t be degraded for bending genres to its favor — it should be celebrated for blending preconceived notions of TV’s two categories and competing at the medium’s highest level.
“Orange is the New Black” got to television’s biggest stage on its own terms, rather than through any preconceptions set out for it by antiquated industry requirements. All broadcast television shows are generally forced to be one thing or another: a 22-minute comedy or a 42-minute drama. Introducing elements of both are encouraged when it comes to laughs and tears, but the time commitments are firm. Even on cable, the length of an episode can be a make-or-break aspect of its mere existence.
Premium cable allows for more fluidity in episode times, but even those networks adhere to a structured schedule. The creators of “Veep” can’t simply decide Episode 4 needs an extra seven minutes to properly travel from point A to point B. If they did, it would push “Silicon Valley” back that extra seven minutes, infuriating subscribers who still tune in to watch a specific show at a specific time (and angering even more people who rely on their DVRs to record their favorite shows from exactly 9:30 – 10pm on Sunday nights).
Millennials don’t care about this. Anyone born after 1985 doesn’t tend to tune in for regularly scheduled programming, and they don’t rely on DVRs to handle their favorite shows for them. They use, of course, the internet. Why? Because they want to watch TV whenever they choose. This isn’t breaking news, but it is one of the major reasons Netflix has been able to build itself into not only a competitor with HBO, but the network that dethroned it in more ways than one.
With its nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series (and Drama Series the past two years with “House of Cards”), Netflix executives threatened HBO’s most prized possession: hardware. It wasn’t that long ago that HBO sat at the proverbial cool kids’ table, and one could argue it’s still running the awards season lunchroom. The network racks up the most Emmy nominations every year by a staggering margin (14 years in a row at No. 1; 99 nods this year vs. 47 for second place; 19 Primetime Emmy wins vs 11 for CBS at No. 2), and it was the first cable giant to win “the big one” at the Emmys, setting up the subsequent slew of original programming from all over today’s channel guide.
“Orange is the New Black” was all set to follow in the footsteps of “The Sopranos” Monday night, breaking new ground for a medium with a glass ceiling in need of shattering. Netflix reeling in top comedy honors as an online-only distribution platform is reminiscent of how HBO’s dominance at the Emmys marked cable networks’ expansion into original programming. It would have set a historical precedent exactly when we needed one, but while one generation may have already embraced the new digital world, let’s not forget the vast majority of viewers still watch TV traditionally. According to a study by The New York Times, most Gen X and Baby Boomer viewers watch shows “mostly” on TV (65 percent and 76 percent, respectively) and only a small percentage watch mostly online. That study is almost a year old, so by now those numbers may have softened — but they still constitute a majority.
That majority was most certainly at play when “Modern Family” won its fifth straight Emmy award for Outstanding Comedy Series, tying the record for most of any comedy with “Frasier.” Does it matter that few experts, critics, or even industry insiders probably would rank “Frasier” behind many other more admirable comedies now? No, because it has already won, just like “Modern Family.” The Emmys are not a sign of the times. They’re the voting results of a divergent group of industry folk who just established an online voting system for nominees, let alone figured out how to watch shows existing only on the internet.
When the online voting system was introduced, many wondered whether or not the easy polling option would diversify the nominations list. It did, for the most part, with many exciting new nominees making the cut. Yet online voting wasn’t available for anyone looking to pick the winners (this alone should have been recognized as foreshadowing for the Netflix shut out). Voting still had to be done the old fashioned way when filling out the final ballots, and while it may not have been the deciding factor in who won or lost, the TV Academy’s antiquated voting methods were disturbingly paralleled by the winners’ list. “Breaking Bad” won for drama series, its second win. Aaron Paul collected his third trophy while costars Anna Gunn and Bryan Cranston picked up her second and his fourth. Julianna Margulies won her second trophy while on the comedy side patterns were very similar, where all of the winners had won in years prior, often on more than one occasion (Allison Janney won twice this year!).
What’s most frustrating about the familiarity of it all is that we’re living in a time of the unfamiliar. Shows and even networks you’ve never heard of are finding a sweet spot among consumers and creating diverse, engaging, and often quite excellent content. Amazon continues to make strides with its originals’ lineup, while Hulu, Yahoo, AOL and more are working hard to move up right behind them. Soon there will be more new shows than anyone can keep up with, forcing consumers to not only carefully pick what shows to watch, but also where to watch them. It’s an exciting time to be creating just about anything, and an equally exciting moment for anyone looking for something off the beaten path.
So it was with an audible groan I watched the “Modern Family” producers and cast take the stage at the Nokia Theater. It’s a scene we’ve all seen for half of a decade now from a show whose title provides the perfect ironic jab at itself. Things aren’t so modern anymore at the Emmys, and it’s disappointing so many of the voters clearly think otherwise.
This wasn’t just a loss for Netflix. It was a loss for content creators everywhere.