Are the 2023 Emmy nominations the equivalent of the orchestra playing as the Titanic sinks – a party balloon, as a writer friend put it, floating in the fires of Hell? The plaudits for Peak TV arrived amid an industry in peak crisis: The actors’ union agreed unanimously to strike at noon Pacific time on Thursday, shutting down all film, television and streaming production – including all U.S. series shot in Canada, where actors promptly walked off their sets. They join the writers’ union, which has been on strike for 70+ days with no end in sight.
Media companies are already staggering under debt from new acquisitions and from launching streaming services. Disney, NBCUniversal and Paramount Global each lost hundreds of millions of dollars from streaming in the most recent quarter. Network ad sales are limp. Projects and development deals are being scrapped. Jobs are disappearing (Disney alone plans to axe 7,000). The entire payment model has been upended.
The last double strike was in 1960. In 1980, the actors went on strike for nearly 100 days. In late 2007 and early 2008, the writers struck for nearly the same length of time. The issue, in each case, was modifying payments to reflect new technology – figuring out a way to compensate people fairly for work that networks and studios profited from in perpetuity.
Today’s concerns make those older strikes feel quaint. At the Oppenheimer launch in London this week – the last time we’ll see actors on a red carpet for a while – Matt Damon reminded people how high the stakes are for even small payments: An actor must “make $26,000 a year to qualify for your health insurance and there are a lot of people who get across that threshold through their residual payments.” But residuals for reruns are relics in our all-new-content-all-the-time streaming age. (Check out Michael Schulman’s fantastic piece in The New Yorker about Orange Is the New Black’s tiny residuals – as little as $20 a year for some of its actors.)
The other strike sticking point, the threat of AI to writers’ and actors’ work, is racing ahead of how fast we can process it. And the money folks are playing hardball – an anonymous executive told Deadline Hollywood that the suits are willing to keep the writers on strike until they can no longer afford their rent or mortgage payments. Let me reiterate that: People like Netflix chief Ted Sarandos, who made $22-million plus stock options last year, are willing to see writers, most of whom are raggedly middle class, be unhoused.
It certainly puts the Emmy snubbing of Atlanta, Perry Mason and Yellowstone in perspective. And those 109 writers from late night shows including Colbert’s, Oliver’s and SNL, who are nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series? Theirs were the first workplaces to shut down on May 2, and the studios have not held talks with the writers’ guild since.
The absurdity of the Emmy nominees arriving now is a shame, though, because so much excellent television was properly recognized. Twenty-seven nominations for Succession, 14 of those for its thrilling ensemble acting; 24 for The Last of Us; 23 for The White Lotus; 13 for The Bear (my favourite series right now); 11 for Barry; seven for Better Call Saul; and seven for Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, the most for a non-fiction nominee.
The television academy lauded work by women and other under-represented groups, with multiple nominations for Bad Sisters and BEEF, Abbot Elementary and Queer Eye, RuPaul and Guillermo del Toro, and Carol Burnett. Thirty-four performers of colour were nominated as actors or reality hosts, including Ayo Edebiri, Jenna Ortega, Pedro Pascal and Arian Moayed.
The divine Harriet Walter earned two acting nods (for series as tonally opposite as Succession and Ted Lasso), as did the divine Murray Bartlett: one for the limited series Welcome to Chippendales and one for co-starring with co-nominee Nick Offerman in perhaps the most-discussed – and most moving – hour of television this year, The Last of Us episode three, Long, Long Time, a perfect precis of how love can turn a prison into a jewel box.
But here’s evidence of how drastically things have changed and are changing still: While HBO/Max may be delighted with its 127 nods, along with the streamers Netflix (103 nominations), AppleTV+ (54), Prime (45), Hulu (42) and Disney+ (40), the four traditional US broadcasters (ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox) added together scored only 86 nominations. They’re the employers who still pay writers for full seasons and for reruns – yet their ratings are so down, they’re in no position to rescue anyone, including themselves.
Moreover, though Fox is scheduled to air the Emmys on Sept. 18, it’s likely the strikes could push that to November. And even though this is the 75th Emmys – which should be cause for a major birthday celebration – Fox is so indifferent about the whole thing, they’d prefer to postpone the show until January. (The Daytime Emmys, which had been scheduled for June on CBS, have been postponed without a new date.)
So yes, I’m happy for Keri Russell’s nomination for The Diplomat, and Martin Short’s for Only Murders in the Building. I’m glad that the limited series Fleishman Is in Trouble got recognized, and Christina Applegate’s layered, exasperated work on Dead to Me. I wish Nicholas Hoult had been nominated for The Great, and clearly I need to check out Swarm and Jury Duty.
But I’m mostly crushed, because we are living in the greatest time for televised content in history, and there should be plenty of wealth to go around. (By the way, if you’re not paying for content legally, you are part of this problem.) Instead, the suits are betting that viewers won’t notice that their content has dwindled until Christmas, and who wants to be on strike then?
If you’re looking to catch up on series you missed – and you can, forever, thanks to the very on-demand and streaming platforms the strikes are about – here are 18 stellar ones: the comedies Barry, The Bear, Jury Duty, Only Murders in the Building, The Other Two and Ted Lasso; the dramas Andor, Bad Sisters, Better Call Saul, The Last of Us, Succession and The White Lotus; and the limited series/television movies BEEF, Fire Island, Fleishman is in Trouble, Prey, Swarm and Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Those are the Emmy nominees for Outstanding Writing – brought to you, as everything is, by writers. Pay them, and the actors who bring their words to life, what they deserve.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.