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HBO won Emmys night, but the future belongs to streaming platforms

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The awards show felt like a send-off for an era of TV

TOPSHOT-DOUNIAMAG-US-ENTERTAINMENT-TELEVISION-EMMYS-PRESS ROOM ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Last night’s Emmy Awards was nothing new. HBO, Amazon, and Netflix took home many awards at TV’s most prestigious event. Yet the most interesting part of the evening wasn’t necessarily who won, but the commercials for major streaming services that played between acceptance speeches, a signal of how stretched out TV is about to become.

The ads were louder this year. The Emmys, airing this year on Fox, were full of commercial spots for Apple TV Plus, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and Netflix. There were a few scattered promotions for standard broadcast networks, including commercials for new series like Prodigal Son and network favorites like The Masked Singer, but it was a streaming service’s world. Apple used the Emmys evening to play short teasers for a number of its shows; Disney kicked off the evening by securing the first commercial break, playing a new commercial for Disney+ and announcing that preorders are now available.

Even people at the Emmys poked fun at the incoming war for people’s money. Comedian Thomas Lennon started off his evening announcing the awards show by cracking a joke about the real battle of the evening being between HBO Now’s $14.99 subscription fee and Netflix’s $12.99 price. HBO won when it came to award numbers (nine), but it was closely followed by Amazon (five) and Netflix (four). As The New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan tweeted, this year’s “Emmy telecast is really making the case against television.”

Or maybe a case against a particular era of television. TV is getting bigger, and trying to catch everything is becoming more difficult. The plethora of commercials for streaming services last night was a stark reminder that in order to be in the cultural conversation for the next few Emmy ceremonies, after newcomers like Disney, Apple, and maybe even Quibi enter the race, people will have to subscribe, subscribe, subscribe. That’s on top of shelling out for services from Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu. And that doesn’t account for possible contenders on HBO Max or NBCUniversal’s Peacock. As Variety’s Michael Schneider noted, “In many ways, this year’s Emmys feels like the end of one TV era, as the farewells of Game of Thrones and Veep remove two dominant HBO players from the competition.”

Talking about the “streaming wars,” a catch-all term to describe the mob of new services coming out within the next eight months, has largely been focused on price. How much will it cost to have two subscriptions? Three? All of them? Other conversations have focused on high-bid exclusives. Netflix reportedly paid more than $500 million for the global rights to Seinfeld, WarnerMedia supposedly paid $425 million for the rights to Friends, and NBCUniversal apparently paid about $500 million for The Office. Last night’s Emmys opened a new conversation about the streaming wars: the cultural cost of not keeping up with every hot show on every single service.

It’s already happening. A quick anecdote: After the Emmys ended, I texted my mother, an avid TV watcher and longtime awards show fan, to ask if any of her favorite shows won. With the exception of NBC’s This is Us and Netflix’s When They See Us, she hadn’t watched any of the shows. She doesn't watch HBO shows, and with the exception of Netflix, she doesn’t subscribe to any services. No Hulu or Amazon Prime Video; and there’s no interest to purchase a plan for Apple TV Plus, Disney+, Peacock, or any other service. It’s becoming more difficult for her to be part of the conversation as the future of TV moves away from TV.

Broadcast is still fighting to remain relevant, and still producing series worthy of attention. This week alone, NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS are set to debut 64 shows. It’s a callback to event television, harkening back to an era before companies like Amazon and Apple were included in television awards show conversations. It’s a facet of competing for attention that entertainment presidents at the major networks are also thinking about.

Television has changed from decade to decade. There used to just be a few broadcast networks, then cable became a thing. That was followed by premium cable and, now, streaming services. The evolution of how people watch TV isn’t surprising. The difference between various broadcast networks, premium cable dominating television viewing, and streaming is how we watch. Streaming removes the channel flipping aspect, where different shows on different networks could be found simply by clicking through. Now, networks and companies are asking subscribers to visit one specific service and stay there. If someone only subscribes to one or two services, the chance they’ll see a show people are talking about decreases substantially.

The Emmys as an awards show will still look the same in years to come — dramas and comedies will be nominated; actors, writers, and directors will show up to make their speeches. But how many of those shows will people recognize? Or how many will they have watched? Everything is shifting; Game of Thrones send-off last night acted as a reminder that television can be a beautiful communal affair, but that changes when TV gets more spread out and exclusive through different streaming services. There are about to be more shows than ever thanks to new entrants like Apple, Quibi, and Disney+. How many future nominated series people watch will largely depend on how many streaming services they’re willing to pay for — or what they decide to pirate. Not everyone will subscribe to every service, and no one has the time to watch everything.

If the Emmys no longer reflect what the majority of people are watching, because people are sticking to two or three streaming services, what purpose does the show serve? The Emmy Awards already feel like a show by industry people for industry people — talking about how to make the Emmys more appealing as a show is an entirely different piece — but if audiences are divided even more by streaming silos, a bigger question becomes why should anyone care if they don’t recognize a big portion of the nominated series?