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What the Emmy award nominations say about TV trends

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For the 2016 Emmy Awards, they have to choose between some of the best shows ever available on the small screen: "The Americans" versus "House of Cards" versus "Game of Thrones." Anyone interested in serious competition will have to tune in!

Yet few of the nominees appear on broadcast networks like ABC, which will air the awards on September 18. They're on cable channels or streaming services instead. The glamorous ceremony itself is an anachronism. Officially called the Primetime Emmy Awards, it increasingly recognizes shows that can be watched 24/7 on mobile devices.

HBO is the most-nominated network, with 94 nods, followed by FX with 56 and Netflix, 54. None of the nominees for Outstanding Drama Series is available on network television and only two of the seven Outstanding Comedy Series are, ABC's "Black-ish" and "Modern Family."

"The artistic, technological and dramatic quality of this year's nominees is higher than ever," says Emil Steiner, a media scholar at Temple University. But what's also apparent, he says, is "the clash of old and new culture and technology."

The rise of online television platforms

Internet services have disrupted the television industry at a staggering rate. Amazon and Netflix had zero nominations in 2012; they have a combined 70 in 2016. David Shaheen, managing director of JPMorgan Chase's Commercial Banking Entertainment Group, says the proliferation of channels is telling. This year, 20 outlets have more than five nominations, nearly twice as many as in 2012.

"It speaks to one of the big trends in the industry, which is that is there is an ever-increasing amount of capital invested into original television," Shaheen says.

Channels that previously focused on reruns today need good original programming to attract viewers. "They're fighting for eyeballs," Shaheen says, and spending prodigiously to do so.

A new 'golden age' of television

Single episodes of shows like "Game of Thrones" cost about $10 million to make, but multimillion dollar investments only partly explain why cable and streaming services dominate the Emmys. The broadcast networks face restraints that limit what they can show. Federal regulations censor language, nudity and violence—not exactly a problem on HBO—and commercials shorten the length of a program.

“By definition, it's harder to make something great when you're facing more limitations than fewer limitations," says Brian Edwards, executive vice president of television operations at MGM. Cable and streaming channels, however, can take creative risks, so it's hardly surprising they garner more critical praise.

"Competition between platforms requires a certain amount of content differentiation to attract viewers," Edwards says, which fosters a greater mix of unconventional narratives and offbeat storytelling.

Content is king

Between broadcast, cable and streaming channels, Emmy nominations went to 52 platforms this year. As the number of platforms for television has grown, their individual value has diminished.

Gone are the days when NBC ruled Thursday nights. Viewers aren't loyal to networks anymore, but to shows, which they'll watch on whatever platform they appear. Netflix has picked up 83 million subscribers worldwide largely by creating original shows like "House of Cards" and "Orange is the New Black."

Many young people, ages 18 to 29, don't see the point of subscribing to cable or even owning a television, since their favorite shows are online. According to the Pew Research Center, one in six of them have never had a cable subscription, and 19 percent have canceled such services. They see little sense in spending an average of $87 month on a cable package when Netflix is only $10.

In order to change that calculus, broadcast and cable networks need unmissable programming.

"People used to say content is king," Edwards says. "To me now, content is emperor. Why do you think DirecTV started to do originals or Comcast bought DreamWorks Animation?"

Looking ahead

The current "golden age" of television isn't likely to fade anytime soon.

"There are so many niche channels with so many different audiences, I think what's happening is that consumption is actually increasing," Shaheen says. "The Discovery Network, National Geographic or Lifetime are reaching their audience with quality programming and people are consuming more."

Even if audience numbers eventually plateau, people will still be watching more television than ever before. What form that television takes is an open question. Edwards expects short-form video to grow. Steiner foresees interactive technology and virtual reality to be the future of television.

The Emmys may change with these new platforms, refining categories, or even the definition of television. Yet as new stories are told and new voices heard, there will still be much worth celebrating.

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