Why Does Cable Programming Do So Well at the Emmys?
As we mentioned last week, the 67th Primetime Emmy nominations were announced and cable shows are running away with the majority of nominations. This week, we take a closer look at what’s behind this dominance, and why some of the best storytelling and actors come from cable.
Let’s start with the clear frontrunner, Game of Thrones, which leads the pack with 24 nominations. HBO didn’t have a hard time getting this one to take off. Fans of the book series tuned into their TVs in droves to watch the show, with viewership increasing every year since its television debut in 2011. Last season’s finale drew an all-time high for the show with 8.11 million viewers. With cable’s creative freedom to explore provocative themes that aren’t found elsewhere on television, Game of Thrones thrived. Cable is a platform that allows talented producers and writers to play with scenes and plots that traditional show models have stayed away from–hence, why the show attracts so many loyal fans.
The nomination of a new spinoff show, Better Call Saul on AMC, is also an interesting one because its existence came about from Breaking Bad, the winner of 16 Emmys and a show that developed a huge fan base of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman fanatics. Inevitably, the excitement for Breaking Bad spilled over into Better Call Saul. But Breaking Bad may never have been allowed to run its course had it started off on a platform other than cable. The momentum of the crime-drama series was slow at the start, pulling in around one million viewers in the series premiere in 2008. Fast forward to the fifth season, the series finale wrapped up with an impressive 10 million viewers in 2013. Once TV viewers started catching on to the dark and psychological intricacies of the plot, people held binge fests on weekends to catch up on previous seasons, whether they used Netflix or cable and satellite video on demand to do so. Breaking Bad is a testament to the liberty that the cable platform has, where shows are given the time to build a loyal following, and the patience to create a cultural shift in television storylines that plunge deeper into characters’ psyches than ever before.
FACT: Cable received 315 of the 567 2015 Primetime Emmy nominations.
In contrast, the psychological thriller television series on NBC, Hannibal, another dark show that attempts to depart from the traditional storyline models was recently canceled by NBC, mostly due to low live viewership after three seasons, despite the show’s ability to attract a passionate cult following. In fact, the show ranked fifth in Nielson’s Twitter TV ratings, which gives a sense of the high engagement Hannibal instills in its viewers, making the cancellation all the more unfortunate. The show was halted just as its unconventional plot was gaining momentum. The objective of broadcast networks often gets in the way of creative and nonconformal plotlines due to broadcast’s use of public airwaves. Broadcast networks are bound by rules regarding profanity, nudity, and violence, while cable networks are not, allowing for a more real, uncensored and augmented artistic experience on cable.
That’s not to say that Hannibal is dead, though. With such ardent fans organizing petitions for the show’s return, there’s always a chance for great storytelling to emerge once again, just on another platform. Cable has been known to resurrect shows previously cancelled on broadcast networks, like Futurama, which was picked up by Comedy Central, and Cougar Town, which found a home at TBS.
The more noticeable change we are also seeing in cable shows are the A-list movie stars popping up on our small screen. Take Claire Danes, who stars in Homeland. Though she started her career on the television drama series My So Called Life, she’s now more known for her performances in ’90s blockbuster movies like Romeo and Juliet and Little Women. Rachel McAdams, famous for her roles in new movie favorites like Mean Girls and The Notebook, is another example. Her appearance in season two of True Detective on HBO is a departure from her former gigs.
True Detective, though missing from this year’s nominations list due to the timing of season two’s debut, is likely to be a contender for the 2016 nominations. Last month, McAdams told Marie Claire that her role as Detective Ani Bezzerides is one of the most complex characters she’s ever played: “I love the exploration of someone who has such a different background from you. That exploration runs to compassion, and to cracking yourself open and creating more understanding of how weird and amazing life is.” McAdams’ point really speaks to cable’s ability to select and run with stories that push actors’ limits and talents, to the thrill of audiences sitting in front of their TV sets. There’s no denying that talent such as this will only add to viewers’ appetites for high-quality acting in rich and unforgiving storylines.
Cable’s reign at the Emmys is no fluke–it’s a pattern that’s established itself since The Sopranos received the first cable show nomination for a drama series in 1999. Audiences have made it clear what they’re after: narratives that push social boundaries and defy conventional norms, and actors who can pull it off. The cable platform is their launching pad.