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Hulu’s Emmy wins mark its emergence as a major entertainment player

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The Handmaid’s Tale has turned Hulu into a real network

69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Press Room Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Going into the 69th Emmy awards Sunday night, online streaming services were poised to make a statement. Original programming from Netflix, Amazon Studios, and Hulu earned more than 125 nominations this year. Netflix earned 92 of them on its own, buoyed by huge showings for Stranger Things and The Crown. With Game of Thrones out of the running due to its release dates falling outside the Emmy window, the door was open for Netflix to finally take home the biggest prize of the evening: Outstanding Drama Series.

Instead, a very different dynamic unfolded over the course of the ceremony. Stranger Things was shut out completely, as was HBO’s Westworld, the most-nominated show of the Emmys. House of Cards was ignored, and Netflix’s wins were in smaller categories: John Lithgow’s supporting turn in The Crown, or Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe’s comedy-series writing award for Master of None.

As the night closed out, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale stood the tallest. Not only did the dystopian drama tie with the HBO miniseries Big Little Lies for most awards of the night (at five wins apiece), Hulu also became the first streaming service to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. It was a dominant statement from a network that, until this year, failed to receive a single major-category Emmy nomination. After years of chasing Netflix and Amazon, trying to prove itself as a viable player in the world of prestige television, the 2017 Emmys made it clear that Hulu has grown up.

Awards-season recognition isn’t necessarily a game-changer on its own. Hollywood loves self-congratulations, and just because a project wins awards doesn’t mean it’s going to appeal to audiences. But in the world of streaming services, a different calculation is in play. Until House of Cards came along in 2013, the idea of an online service delivering original programming on par with the shows at HBO or Showtime was unheard of. Netflix’s first forays into original programming became bids for legitimacy. And not just for audiences, either; Hollywood is a self-perpetuating machine, and a studio or network that’s seen as a prestigious, friendly home for writers and directors will have the leverage to draw in bigger and more prestigious talent.

That’s precisely the reputation Netflix has been able to cultivate over the past four years. Amazon has tried to follow suit, helped by awards-friendly shows like Jill Soloway’s Transparent and The Man in the High Castle. Hulu, on the other hand, had been lagging. The service has been investing in original content for years, but even projects like the high-profile Stephen King adaptation 11.22.63 failed to give it the glossy sheen enjoyed by its streaming competitors. In 2016, Hulu received just two Emmy nominations: Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special, for an election special starring Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and the oddly named Outstanding Special Visual Effects In A Supporting Role for 11.22.63. This year, that number of nominations jumped to 18, with The Handmaid’s Tale accounting for 13 of them.

Hulu’s maturation isn’t simply about appealing to would-be creators, however. Traditionally in television, an Emmy performance like the one enjoyed by The Handmaid’s Tale — and the wave of press that follows it — would drive further interest in the series, leading audiences to watch it on DVD, Blu-ray, or a digital download. But we’re in the era of streaming services now, where exclusivity is king. The only way for someone intrigued by the Emmy talk to sample The Handmaid’s Tale is to open up a subscription with Hulu. And once the company has gotten a new viewer past the considerable barrier of deciding to try a new streaming service, it becomes that much easier to keep them locked in with its other programming.

And Hulu’s original-content strategy seems to be intensifying. The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale begins shooting this week, and the service has already been hyping Castle Rock, its upcoming Stephen King-inspired series from producer J.J. Abrams. Later this year, the service will premiere Marvel’s The Runaways, a comic-book adaptation shepherded by the creators of Gossip Girl and The O.C.It’s also working on a futuristic drama with House of Cards creator Beau Willimon about the first manned mission to Mars.

Hulu isn’t producing the kind of volume that Netflix is just yet, but Hulu’s increased focus on quality seems clear — and the Emmy wins will only bolster that perception. That said, it’s important to not discount the achievements of other streaming players. Netflix didn’t have the strongest night, but it nevertheless took home four awards. Fold in its wins at the smaller, more craft-focused Creative Arts Emmys last weekend, and that brings Netflix’s 2017 total to 20 wins — second only to HBO, which scored 29. (Hulu came in fourth with 10 overall wins.) More importantly, Netflix’s number of nominations skyrocketed this year, leaping from the 54 nominations it had last year.

That’s the benefit of Netflix’s massive creative output: more shows means more opportunities for a Stranger Things or The Crown to emerge from the pack. But ultimately, this isn’t a zero-sum game. More prestige-level shows from Hulu doesn’t mean less overall opportunity for Netflix, and vice versa. What we’re actually seeing is the maturation of streaming services as original content creators. With every big Emmy win, or zeitgeist-capturing show, the line between traditional television providers and online streaming services fades even further, until wins like this will cease to be notable at all. This is the emergence of the new entertainment landscape. Soon, a record-setting night from Hulu or Netflix will be as common as one from the networks we’ve been watching for decades.