Never mind Netflix. Never mind old-school network TV. HBO owns quality television.
That's the upshot the 67th Emmy Awards. HBO won a staggering 43 awards. Its closest competitor was NBC, which won 12, and that was thanks to a number of wins for a single production, Saturday Night Live's 40th Anniversary. In a year in which AMC's Mad Men ended and was expected to win multiple Emmy's, as an acknowledgment of its iconic status, HBO's Game of Thrones won for Best Drama and the premium cable channel's Veep swept the comedy categories.
There were numerous surprises. Some indicated long-standing obstacles and prejudices in the TV world have evaporated. Viola Davis became the first non-white actress to claim the top drama acting honour, for her work in ABC's How To Get Away with Murder. The inexplicable snubbing of Jon Hamm ended when he finally won for playing Don Draper in Mad Men. He'd been nominated five times before and lost out. Another surprise was the emphatic endorsement of Game of Thrones. Emmy voters had, for decades, been reluctant to honour fantasy-based programs.
Before Sunday's awards there was considerable speculation in the industry about how new rules on voting might change Emmy outcomes. By tradition the Television Academy's membership allowed a small number of so-called "Blue Ribbon panels" to make the final decision on winners. This meant the core judges were often a gaggle of older members who had time to screen and decide among a vast number of nominees. They stuck to familiar shows. That was the standard explanation for such shows as Modern Family winning an Emmy year after year.
This year, many more of the Academy's 19,000 members were empowered and encouraged to vote. And when they did, they voted for HBO. At one point in Sunday night's proceedings, HBO's mini-series Oliver Kitteridge was winning so many awards – it eventually won eight – that the viewing public would get the impression that the sensitive literary adaptation was the major TV event of the last year.
It wasn't, but its success in accumulating Emmy Awards points to HBO's deftness in cornering the market in the perception of quality. This is as much a branding tactic as it is a skill in developing great TV shows and mini-series. Olive Kitteridge is an exquisite production but Emmy voters inundated it with honours because, possibly overwhelmed with choice, they see HBO as a safe brand to favour. They are, in the end, as shallow and predictable as most TV viewers.
What viewers saw during he awards show was a reasonably fast-paced and slick production that only sagged occasionally. Host Andy Samberg, still young but long past his stand-up days, was just juvenile enough in his jokes to enliven what has sometimes been a very stately event. He took a few chances with risky material and a bit of physical humour based on a sex act in HBO's Girls that probably left many viewers bewildered and others in shocked delight.
The emotional highlight was an impassioned Viola Davis, who declared in a moving speech, "The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win Emmys with roles that are simply not there."
Her win underscores how much has changed in TV, both mainstream and cable. There are so many more quality shows, so much greater diversity and expectations are high.
In fact they are so high and the number of sophisticated shows so great that the Emmy Awards cannot possibly do the industry justice these days. Even before the nominees were announced and the winners declared, many quibbles could be made. Two excellent FX series, Justified and The Americans, were largely ignored and Rectify, a masterful evocation of loss and raw human sensibility that airs on the Sundance Channel, was nowhere to be found.
Netflix will be disappointed that having declared its intention to be the equal of HBO, most if its productions were shut out. Admirers of Mad Men will quibble that Game of Thrones is an adolescent concoction, vastly inferior to the nuanced, adult saga of the advertising industry, and America, in the 1960s.
Faced with decisions about quality, Emmy voters went with the safe harbour of the HBO brand. Viewers who do the same will miss out on a cornucopia of great storytelling. HBO itself will have no complaints about the Emmy Awards. It cleaned up. An unsatisfying conclusion, but not worth more than a quibble. Besides, the moment the Emmy Awards ceremony ends, a new TV season starts.