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It's been 10 years this week since a streamer won its first Primetime Emmy, when Netflix's House of Cards took home trophies for outstanding cast for a drama series, best directing for David Fincher and outstanding cinematography. And we know how things have gone since. By 2021, the same company took home more of the awards than any other network or platform. With the emergence of streamers, we've seen the whole business of entertainment upended, as demonstrated by the current dual strikes of writers and actors.
Award-winning shows don't always pull in big ratings, but they do tend to reflect the state of TV. And the Emmys history confirms what we've all seen coming for decades: The way we watch TV is different now than it was in the days of Johnny Carson and even Arsenio Hall and David Letterman. With the rise of this new way of consuming TV, viewers are no longer prisoner to the whims of executives setting a TV schedule. We can watch Suits, Abbott Elementary, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Only Murders in the Building whenever, wherever. Netflix's Orange Is the New Black cemented the practice of binge-watching, and we've never looked back.
The result for audiences is that we're not always watching the same things anymore. There's less of a chance colleagues will chat about the big show that aired last night — at least the colleagues not working from home — or that we'll have that "Charlie Brown moment," where everyone tunes into the one airing a year of A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Last year the special streamed exclusively on Apple TV+.) The Super Bowl and live sports are exceptions. Of course there are benefits, too, to sweeping changes like this in our entertainment culture, a culture that affects... everything.
TV and entertainment culture is 'a force that shapes the world'
Walt Hickey, the author of the forthcoming book You Are What You Watch, points out in it that we spend more than 20 percent of our waking hours consuming some kind of media, so it's not a fluffy subject.
Television, he tells Yahoo Entertainment, is "how people can learn new things about themselves," "a way to develop a sense of empathy" and, "perhaps most importantly, a force that shapes the world." Hickey saw that researching his book, in the way that baby names often follow pop culture trends and how beautiful places featured in a show can become tourist destinations.
Meanwhile, Larry P. Gross, a professor of communication at USC, tells Yahoo Entertainment that television became a "common denominator" in the 1950s.
"And what you have for about half a century from the '50s through the end of the 20th century, is you have a kind of a return to that pre-industrial state where everybody is getting the same message in a way that wasn't true before and isn't true anymore," he says, naming All in the Family, The Cosby Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show as some of the last shows that we all watched together.
Back then, popular shows would attract as many viewers as you would expect for a big event in 2023, perhaps more. For example, the most watched show in the 2022-2023 season, excluding the NFL, was Yellowstone, with 11.6 million viewers. Comparatively, the final episode of All in the Family in 1979 pulled in more than 40 million viewers.
More diverse programs contributed to the 'Golden Age of Television'
The most obvious development in the shift in TV over the last decade or so is that the practice of a few networks dictating what we can choose to watch during primetime every night has ended.
"One thing that we've seen since then is that artists and creatives who wouldn't have normally gotten a shot, get a shot," says Hickey, who's also the president of GALECA, the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. "We've seen television forced to kind of innovate... and you saw the 'Golden Age of Television' emerge. And you saw 'Peak TV' emerge... you were able to get some really promising and genuinely artistic television that just genuinely never would've been authorized on the big three."
He doubts that shows such as Mad Men or The Sopranos would have ended up on the powerful networks of yesteryear.
We're 'still a monoculture' in some ways
"It's a different kind of world, but I would argue that, just a little bit, it's still a monoculture," he says of entertainment in general, citing when the movies Barbie and Oppenheimer blew up the box office and seemed to take over the world this summer.
But there have been cracks, opportunities for more voices to come in and tell different stories than we've heard again and again.
Hickey cites "encouraging results" from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California's latest studies, which show that slight gains are being made when it comes to diversity of the people behind what we watch. But there's a long way to go.
"You typically will find that you're gonna get more diverse stories and more genuine inclusion," Hickey says, "where you're telling stories that are truly at the heart of what they're trying to accomplish, rather than just kind of surface-level inclusion."
Quite a change from when the big networks were seen as gatekeepers who could take or leave a subject.
Gross points to the national news outlets of the old days.
"They were very, very similar in their worldview, very concentrated in that sense," Gross says. "The entire culture, to some degree, would be absorbing the same accounts. Now, there's a lot to criticize about that. For one thing, they were often misleading. If they didn't want to talk about something, you wouldn't know about it. There was very little independent way for people who were dissidents from whatever side, from the left, from the right, to get access to audiences."
As Hickey sees it, the 2023 version of TV gives us more to discuss whether we're at the office watercooler of the pre-COVID "before times." It just looks different.
"You know, we don't all need to be talking about the same thing," he says. "Put it this way. Wouldn't it be cool if there was one show that everybody watched every week and we could talk about that show? Sure, that would be cool. That was a defining way that a lot of things worked for a while. But I would just counter that, isn't it also kind of cool that now there's a lot of shows? And maybe you don't watch Reservation Dogs, but maybe you really dig anime and, as a result, I'm able to talk to you about anime that we like."
This year's Emmy Awards have been pushed to 2024, due to the strikes, but the nominees were announced in June. Traditional cabler HBO and its streaming arm, Max, landed the most nods, with 127. Netflix wound up in second place, with 103. Apple TV+ (50), Hulu (42), Prime Video (42) and Disney+ (40) trailed them. Two other major players, Peacock and Paramount+, earned eight and seven, respectively.