"It's all television, whether people watch on a mobile device, a tablet or a flat screen," says Bruce Rosenblum, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
Netflix has come of age, as Thursday's first Emmy nominations for the streaming service reflect the shifting landscape for TV viewing.
The service, which aggressively dived into original programming only this year, won 14 nominations Thursday. And recognition by TV's top honors has cemented its status as a new entertainment rival, not only for moldy movies and TV reruns, but also for quality scripted programming with budgets that match the largest on TV. It marked the first time that shows that never aired on traditional broadcast or cable networks were nominated in the top categories, a watershed moment for the awards, which in a 2008 rule change made shows distributed over the Internet eligible for Emmys. But until now, no Web content has managed to crack top Emmy categories, a shift that reflects a leveling of the playing field.
Among its Emmy nods, political thriller House of Cards is a contender in three top categories: for best drama and the performances of its two stars, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Jason Bateman of Arrested Development — the Emmy-winning cult comedy canceled by Fox in 2006 but resurrected on Netflix in May — was nominated as best comedy actor.(Horror series Hemlock Grove also was recognized in two minor categories.)
"We are thrilled beyond belief," says Netflix's Ted Sarandos, who was behind its original-series push and considers the Emmy nods "a leveling moment. Change comes very slow, but Emmy voters recognized that great television is great television, and they didn't pay attention to how it got there. It really validates Internet television as a viable form of the highest-quality entertainment."
Bruce Rosenblum, chairman of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, says the Emmys' recognition of Netflix "is not a sign that broadcast networks are any less important than yesterday; they're still the dominant delivery system." But he sees it as a positive sign for the industry and consumers, and says that while other Internet services aren't competing for trophies today, "in the not-too-distant future this will be replicated by ... other broadband networks. It's all television, whether people watch on a mobile device, a tablet or a flat screen."
Netflix's arrival echoes that of cable series, which until 1987 were ineligible for Emmys, forcing them to start a parallel awards competition. Now they dominate most leading categories with shows that are seen as more creatively ambitious, if not as popular, as big-network series.
Netflix, with 29 million U.S. subscribers, stumbled when it separated its DVD-by-mail business from its faster-growing streaming service in 2011, forcing customers to pay separately for each and decimating its stock price. But it has moved from a buyer of network reruns to a rival producer of original content, with five new series this year alone. Most match budgets for traditional network fare — Cards costs $4 million an episode — and far exceed those for most other Web content offered by Hulu, Amazon and others. Yet Netflix, which does not sell advertising, refuses to reveal viewership data, to the consternation of many rivals.
"It's always nice from a marketing standpoint to get the free publicity that comes along with nominations," which could lead to subscriber growth, says Rich Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG Research. (Its stock price hit a 52-week high this week and is up more than 160% this year.) The "much bigger, long-term benefit," he says, is sending a signal to Hollywood and attracting more big-name writers and actors, he says. "It's a real positive sign to the talent community that Netflix is a place you want to work."