More than anything else, Sunday’s Emmy Awards ceremony was a tribute to the fast-changing, new-frontier-pushing nature of the television landscape. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon were well represented, with Amazon taking home a handful of statuettes, including one for Transparent director Jill Soloway. Viola Davis made history by becoming the first African-American actress to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama series (How To Get Away With Murder). And host Andy Samberg reminded us how impossible it is to keep up with all there is to watch in a hilarious skit that opened the show.
But for all that was new and different and–for lack of a better word–revolutionary about the Emmys, they were also a reminder that in many ways, it’s the establishment that’s winning. Nothing epitomized this more than HBO, which had its own historic moment, taking home 14 statuettes, including best drama for Game of Thrones, and outstanding comedy series for Veep. The last time a network won in both of those categories was in 2002, when NBC won for The West Wing and Friends. Combined with its Creative Emmy wins last week, HBO notched 43 awards overall, which is one less than than CBS won in 1974, when it set the all-time record.
It feels a little strange to evoke those old-guard networks when talking about HBO, which, after all, made its name with groundbreaking, too-risqué-for-prime-time shows like Sex and the City and The Soprano’s. From the very beginning, HBO promised to be a different kind of network. One that broke the rules, pushed the boundaries, and was nothing like what networks like CBS, ABC, and NBC were offering up. “It’s not TV. It’s HBO,” was its iconic tagline.
But today, as traditional television and newfangled TV (like Netflix) have all stolen pages from the HBO playbook in terms of programming, and as technology has created new models for both making and distributing TV shows, it’s HBO that looks like the conventional player. Indeed, when thinking about how HBO approaches “content,” it seems positively un-disrupt-y. Unlike certain rivals, HBO doesn’t call on algorithms to see whether a director or star is popular with its viewers before green-lighting a project. Nor, like another rival, has it ever taken an online poll asking people to vote on pilots. At HBO, a show or movie gets made if executives think it’s good and believes in its creators. This was what happened on Game of Thrones, one of the network’s riskiest bets (the show is now its biggest hit ever), as we wrote about here.
Even as HBO has pushed more on the technology front, launching HBO Now, its streaming service that doesn’t require a cable subscription, earlier this year, it’s HBO’s programming that people talk about. (You can read our feature on that launch here.) Just ask the person sitting next to you what the difference between HBO Now and HBO Go is. Then ask about Game of Thrones, Veep, Girls, The Jinx, True Detective, or Last Night With John Oliver. Most likely, you’ll get a lot more traction on the second question.
But as HBO has defined what television is in 2015, becoming, essentially, the new CBS, what does that mean for its future? Or even its identity? If it’s not “not TV,” then what is it? And as upstarts make more inroads, pushing into territory that was once dominated by HBO–five years ago a show like Transparent only could have gotten made at a handful of cable networks, HBO chief among them–will HBO be forced to reinvent itself again? Or out-edge its new, edgy competitors?
Already there are signs that this is happening. The network is talking about new types of formats for shows on HBO Now–its expanded deal with Vice is yielding some interesting experiments–and president of programming Michael Lombardo has talked about spreading the wealth, so that Sunday night is not necessarily the best and only time to tune in (or set your DVR).
But for now, the company can relish the fact that its tried-and-true format–hiring the best talent, giving them creative reign, and taking risks–is working rather well for them. And making the company very popular on Emmy Night.