TV Throws Down the Gauntlet, Again

The television industry had a very good Emmy night, reinforcing the ways the medium is driving the cultural conversation. For theatrical movies, that’s a big challenge.

As a medium in a refreshing, wrenching transition, television has fully achieved primacy in the national media diet. Stephen Colbert may have said it all: "Everything is better on TV." (CBS/Academy of Television Arts & Sciences)

The night of September 17 was a cracked bellwether in the world of entertainment. The Emmy Awards, the television industry’s homage to its movers and shakers (and by extension itself) stepped off at the Microsoft Theater in Hollywood, and marked what would become a night of historic firsts, firing broadsides on the complacency of the Emmys' own past:

Donald Glover won Emmy Awards for lead actor in a comedy series and directing for a comedy series, both for his work in FX’s Atlanta. He became the first African American director to win for directing a comedy series, and only the second to win best actor in a comedy series, after Robert Guillaume, the immortal Benson, in 1985.

Sterling K. Brown made history, becoming the first African American to win best actor in a drama at the Emmys in 19 years, for his performance in NBC’s This Is Us.

Riz Ahmed won the Emmy for Best Actor in a limited dramatic series for his role in HBO’s riveting The Night Of, becoming the first Muslim and the first South Asian actor to be so honored.

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Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari won Emmys for best writing for a comedy series (Netflix’s Master of None). Waithe became the first African American woman to win an Emmy for best comedy writing. She joined Ansari, the Muslim American who picked up his second writing Emmy for Master, the series he co-created.

Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale won outstanding drama honors — the first for a streaming service — and an outstanding actress Emmy for Elizabeth Moss, gaining new attention for a still-prescient 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, and brilliantly recontextualizing the reproductive rights debate in the time of House Trump.

HBO’s Veep maintained its lock on comedy Emmy nominations and wins (Julia Louis-Dreyfus took home her sixth straight Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series); and presidential asterisk Donald Trump was an early and frequent target of opportunity by everyone from host Stephen Colbert to the Emmy winners themselves. 

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It was a long overdue indicator of societal change, with more of society represented both in nominations and wins than we’ve been accustomed to over the years.

For the Emmys as an institution, and a community trying not to become an “institution” (with all the word's hidebound associations), it was a very good night. The 2017 Emmy recipients’ list reflected an understanding of how minorities figure as position players in every step of the televisual process, from writing to directing to acting. Thus, the Emmys threw down one gauntlet of implicit challenge to the Academy Awards (“let’s see you top this next year!”) — and then threw another one, with the medium of television itself.

The demographic triumphs of this year’s Emmy winners add to the growing cultural and technological evidence that, more than ever before, as a medium in a refreshing, wrenching transition, television has fully achieved primacy in the national media diet, as much or more an immediate identifier and signifier of American popular culture than the movies were for the previous 30 years.

In the Emmys’ winningly retro opening number, taking aim at numerous cultural and political targets of opportunity, Colbert said as much in song: “Everything is better on TV.”

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If television’s at the head of the media table, non-broadcast television is even better positioned to continue to have an impact in a cord-cutting, 24/7 mediaverse. We’ve known that since Aug. 13, with news that the wake-up bomb went off: Shonda Rhimes, one of the most prolific television producers and a cultural creative force in prime-time, was moving her Shondaland production shingle from ABC to the wider-open pastures of Netflix, in an exclusive multi-project deal worth up to $100 million, by some estimates.

Besides the huge potential payoff, Rhimes said one of her main motivators was the comparative freedom Netflix’s programming style affords. The Los Angeles Times broke it down on Aug. 15: 

“Netflix dangled a deal that would have been difficult for ABC to match: the ability to create edgier shows that would be available to a global audience with few creative constraints. Network television demands that writer-producers, known as show runners, adhere to a relentless and rigid schedule. They must crank out 48-minute episodes, leaving room for commercials, and 22 episodes a season. At Netflix, Rhimes could do a series with only eight or 10 episodes, episodes could vary in length and the content can be more provocative than on a network.”

Wait, what? 13 episodes a season instead of 22? That’s an irresistible narrative liberation that ABC, or any of the networks, can’t hope to do much about in an advertiser-centric, risk-averse broadcast industry. Netflix’s appeal to Rhimes is much the same as it is for the rest of us: It’s television on her terms, on her timetable.

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It’s true, Rhimes’ production shift — covered in the media like a cold war-era defection to the West — doesn’t necessarily strike fears in the hearts of movie studio execs. But it’s not just her. What writers and analysts have been calling “the new Golden Age of Television” is just as much a golden age of people talking about television, everywhere, from the C-suite to the cafeteria.

Whether it’s the object of an argument or that which starts one, television is what people seem to have embraced at a more foundational emotional level; it’s what our co-workers chat about, it’s what’s waiting for us at home — whenever we get home. And people are and will be talking about how Netflix’s aggressive multi-platform programming strategy puts those movie studios on notice that they face competition where they’ve historically least expected it.

In late August, Netflix showed how aggressive it intended to be, sending to the industry press email announcements of Joan Didion: The Center Cannot Hold, a new Netflix documentary to be day-and-date released — available both via streaming and at movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles — on Oct. 27.

Netflix thus doubles down on the day-and-date strategy it employed in 2015 with the simultaneous streaming/theater release of Beasts of No Nation, a lacerating vision of civil war in Africa starring Idris Elba. The company was roundly panned for the Beasts move, but the day-and-date release of the documentary on Didion, one of the greatest writers alive (and one of the most private), is a coup that suggests more such releases will figure in the Netflix future. It’s another broadside from a hungry outlier to a studio system whose first-run exclusivity window shrinks more and more every year.

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It’s actions like this willingness to fight a two-front war with the traditional studios that helps television writ large dominate the pop-culture dialogue the way movies used to. It recently got to the point where one legacy studio overvalidated Netflix's impact by accident.

Paramount’s mother!, directed by Darren Aronofsky, debuted recently to almost universally dismal reviews. Megan Colligan, Paramount worldwide president of marketing and distribution, defended the film the wrong way in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.

“This movie is very audacious and brave,” she said. “You are talking about a director at the top of his game, and an actress at the top of her game. They made a movie that was intended to be bold. Everyone wants original filmmaking, and everyone celebrates Netflix when they tell a story no one else wants to tell. This is our version. We don't want all movies to be safe."

You needn’t be a master marketer to see what’s inartful about the comparison built into that last paragraph. Colligan aligns her studio’s latest production with the style of work of another studio, and does it in a way that makes her studio look like a copycat. “[E]veryone celebrates Netflix ... This is our version.” Really? Why would people want your version of Netflix when they can get ... Netflix?

And it’s more than just content style and content mix that give Netflix and streaming counterparts Hulu and Amazon Prime leverage in the zeitgeist; it’s also the fact that they're meeting people where they live, on their timetables, on their terms. Netflix’s day-and-date releases, however successful they may or may not be long-term, send an important message to consumers: We’re willing to be wherever you are. That’s a best-of-both worlds concession to our oversubscribed lives that the traditional multiplex exhibitors just can’t make.

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With all the attention paid to the proliferation of streaming services and how they’re positioned against the legacy studios and mini-majors, it’s often overlooked that the biggest problem for Hollywood going forward is Hollywood itself.

In recent years, the hue and cry over a lack of racial and ethnic diversity among Oscar winners and nominees, and the role of minorities as voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was only the most visible, immediately fixable part of a deeper, central problem.

Call it plus ça change: Even with technological milestones from CinemaScope to 3-D, from Dolby to THX, from 4K to IMAX; despite welcome attractions like leather chairs and reserved seating, wine bars and wi-fi, the modern motion picture industry can chart its current business model back more than 120 years, to December 1895, when the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière charged admission at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, to watch short films they’d created, brief vignettes of French life that people, for the first time, paid money to watch.

If it was any other century-old business selling any other products than story, fantasy, imagination and the stuff of dreams, we’d say it was badly in need of an overhaul. Now, in spite of everything, or because of everything, maybe it still is.

Despite every visual and narrative advance available from the Lumières’ era to this one, the motion picture industry business model is basically the same as it ever was: Charge people money to go into a room and watch stories told with light flickering on a wall. It is, at once, its strength and its weakness. Lately, as TV reinvents itself, more nimbly, consistently and incessantly, it's fresh evidence of what may be the theatrical motion picture's most existential challenge. 

Michael Eric Ross
Michael Eric Ross

Author and journalist Michael Eric Ross contributes to Medium. His writing has also appeared in TheWrap, PopMatters, The New York Times, Wired, Entertainment Weekly, Salon, The Root, msnbc.com, BuzzFeed, and other publications.

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TV Throws Down the Gauntlet, Again