In the TV business, an Emmy Awards campaign can function a lot like a billboard on Sunset Boulevard: a way for companies to announce their presence with authority to others in the game and to lure talent to future projects by staking out a highly visible position at the top tier.
This year, some of those full-page ads and DVD mailers will herald something new: the arrival of a full-on contender with a game-changing pedigree. "House of Cards," an original online-only series from Netflix, has come ready to play. It could make history by being the first drama series nominated for a major television award that isn't actually on television. The series, which stars Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in a tale of behind-the-scenes political intrigue on Capitol Hill, streams exclusively over the Internet for Netflix subscribers.
"Most people watch 'House of Cards' through an Internet connection to their television," says Ted Sarandos, Netflix's chief content officer. "At the end of the day, which pipe went into the box is kind of irrelevant to viewers."Television Academy of Arts & Sciences. Whether they'll embrace or resist such an incursion remains to be seen on July 18, when the nominations are announced, but their own leadership paved the way, initiating a rule change in 2008 that allows digital shows to compete in the same categories as broadcast and cable programs. The provision has languished until now, like a ball gown that was purchased but never worn, but chances are it's about to come out of the closet.
John Leverence, the academy's senior vice president of awards, says the winds of change began to blow back in 2007, when the Emmy-winning makers of TV's "thirtysomething," Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, mounted "Quarterlife," an ambitious but short-lived Web series that aimed to appeal to twentysomethings in the medium that defined their era. By the time the Emmys next rolled around, the doors had been opened to the digital format.
"The board wanted to avoid a divide-and-conquer situation because that would diminish the significance of the award," Leverence says. "You'd have different winners for drama, cable and online. We felt the focus should be on the quality of the storytelling, regardless of the means of delivery."
"We weren't sure we'd be eligible, and we were prepared to discover that we might not be," says Sarandos.
But the real significance of a "House of Cards" nomination, if it happens, will be as the harbinger of a new era. Amazon, Hulu and other online players have plunged into the quality original programming game and will be waiting at the gate. Earlier this spring, Hulu announced six new series, including "Mother Up!," a sitcom starring Eva Longoria. Amazon Originals invited viewer input on 14 series pilots, including "Alpha House," a political satire from "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau that stars John Goodman, and vowed to move forward with whichever got the most votes. Netflix will grab the spotlight again in July when it releases "Orange Is the New Black," a comedy set in a women's prison from "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan.
Meanwhile, the short-form web series is still thriving and remains Emmy-eligible in live-action and nonfiction categories dubbed "special class." Such ambitious and well-funded entries as "H+," a sci-fi future world series from producer Bryan Singer and Warner Bros. Digital Distribution, are likely to figure; also look for the Yahoo comedy "Burning Love," from Ben Stiller and Paramount Digital, and "Lauren," which features Jennifer Beals in a hard-hitting, female-focused military drama shown on Google-owned YouTube, which blew the sector wide open in October with its launch of 60 niche content channels.