David Zurawik

What Emmys mean to 'House of Cards,' Internet TV

When the Maryland workers building the sets for "House of Cards" started sawing and hammering the offices and homes of characters like Francis and Claire Underwood 20 months ago in Harford County, most of them were thinking only of earning a steady paycheck, not being part of TV history.

After all, one of them said to me, how were people going to even see it if it wasn't going to be on TV? And if it was so good, she added, why wasn't it going to be AMC or HBO?

Happily, the audience had no trouble finding "House of Cards" when it debuted a year later with 13 episodes online all at once Feb. 1 on Netflix.

And Sunday, the political thriller starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright is poised to possibly make history at the 65th Emmy Awards Telecast as the first Internet series to win one of the industry's top honors.

Among its nine nominations are three of the most prestigious: best drama and best actor and actress in a drama for Spacey and Wright. The series comes into Sunday's telecast with a strong showing at last week's technical Emmys.

"'House of Cards' already won two Emmys at the Creative Arts Awards for casting and cinematography, so those are big breakthroughs," says Tom O'Neil, editor of and author of "The Emmys," the definitive history of the awards.

"But Netflix needs to take home one or both of the top two honors to be truly triumphant: best drama series and lead actor," he adds. "If it achieves that, then the traditional Emmys will tumble like a house of cards and the Internet will have officially pulled even with broadcast and cable TV."

A win for best drama would be a landmark achievement for "House of Cards" -- far more of a game changer than HBO winning its first major Emmy in 2001 when "Sex and The City" was named best comedy.

Premium cable finally cutting into network television's dominance with the award for Carrie Bradshaw & Co. certainly announced some change in terms of where to go for quality TV, but it was still TV. And cable TV series were at the time still presented in the same weekly viewing pattern as shows on network television.

"House of Cards" has the potential to radically change the way television is made and delivered to audiences. It has already ushered in a new business model -- one that is threatening the Hollywood status quo at several levels.

Media Rights Capital, the global production company that made the series, ditched the old template, in which producers shop a script around to production companies, networks and cable channels, hoping to get the money to make a pilot.

Instead, once star Kevin Spacey, director David Fincher and screenwriter/showrunner Beau Willimon indicated that they were willing to sign on, the production company made an unprecedented commitment for two seasons of 26 episodes — at an estimated $100 million.

HBO, AMC and the others, which are still in the pilot-to-series mode of making TV, wouldn't or couldn't compete with that.

Bypassing TV altogether, Media Rights Capital then sold the first-run U.S. and U.K. rights to Netflix, the Internet giant with 20 million subscribers.

And Netflix would go on to make the first season of 13 episodes available all at once online — challenging a weekly distribution model that had been in place for more than 60 years.

"The Emmys are part of a very long journey that started five or six years ago with us acquiring the rights to 'House of Cards,' and then saying to ourselves, 'Let's make the bet that if we put the absolute best artists and a great idea together and we give them total creative freedom and all the support they could want, that if they make something great, it will find an audience,'" says Modi Wiczyk, CEO of Media Rights Capital.

"We believed that Netflix was a viable network," Wiczyk adds. "It was a big risk at the time, but Netflix delivered. Boy, did they deliver. They came up with an unorthodox way to release the show. They marketed it extremely well to their audience. And they are running a terrific Emmy campaign. We've already won two Emmys, right? So it's already historic."

In terms of marketing and audience, it must be noted that unlike the networks and cable channels, Netflix has not released any numbers as to how many people viewed "House of Cards." Outside of a self-reported rise in subscriptions following the release of "House of Cards," we have no metrics with which to measure the audience.

While there was intense social-media buzz and numerous reports of binge viewing when the series was made available all at once in February, an argument can be made that a wiser distribution and marketing stategy would have been to release the episodes at a rate of one per week in hopes of generating 13 weeks of stories and social media discussion. AMC is employing this strategy in stretching the final 14 episodes of "Mad Men" over two seasons.

Wiczyk believes the nominations are evidence of the "excellence of the show" and the effectiveness of the "campaign Netflix is running."

Emmy campaigns matter, especially when the overall level of excellence is as high as it is in the Best Drama category this year.

Last year's winner, "Homeland," is nominated again, and Showtime is going all out to get votes for the series that last year finally brought the premium cable channel some long-sought parity with HBO when it swept the top drama awards with wins by Claire Danes, Damian Lewis and the series itself.

The win by "Homeland" denied "Mad Men" a record-breaking fifth Emmy as best drama, and AMC is pulling out all the stops to make it happen this year. And if any show is going to beat out "Mad Men," the channel wants it to be "Breaking Bad," which is sure to have a lot of support by nature of its run ending this month. "Breaking Bad" is the Hollywood favorite.

But no one could be more tired of hearing about Netflix and "House of Cards" than HBO, which has "Game of Thrones" in the hunt, and twice as many nominations as anyone else — but not half the buzz of Netflix.

And then, there's "Downton Abbey," the series that brought PBS back from the ratings dead — if only temporarily.

"'House of Cards' and Netflix have already won by nature of the nominations and how quickly they've managed to be on the same stage with such outstanding drama series," TV historian Robert J. Thompson says.

"Look at the history of pay cable," he explains. "HBO started in 1972, and it broke through in the Emmys probably in 2000 when James Gandolfini won as best actor in drama. … That's a long time. But this is really Netflix's first major try at original scripted programming, and it is instantly recognized alongside such great dramas. That's enough. Winning might almost be too much. People might be angry if it beats 'Breaking Bad' on its first try."

Despite such stiff competition, "House of Cards" has a "serious shot" at winning as best drama, says O'Neil, one of Hollywood's top awards handicappers.

"It looks very much like a past winner in this category -- 'The West Wing' -- except that it stars anti-heroes instead of heroes," he says.

Nor does there appear to be any bloc voting against "House of Cards," according to O'Neil, despite the challenge its success poses to some of the indutsry powers that be.

A win by "House of Cards" at the Emmys would also burnish Baltimore's reputation as a place for TV productions to find Emmy gold.

Baltimore-made "Veep," an HBO comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as vice president of the United States, could also be one of the night's major story lines if Dreyfus repeats as best actress in a comedy and the series wins as best comedy. This is "Veep's" first nomination as best comedy, while Louis-Dreyfus is a favorite to win her fourth Emmy.

Best-drama and best-comedy Emmys for two shows about Washington but made in Baltimore would be a compelling story line, wouldn't it? And both shows feature a withering critique of life behind closed doors in our nation's capital at a time when the politicians of the Potomac are held in particularly low esteem by the rest of the country.

Washington's misery is Baltimore's TV glory on Emmy night.

Yeah, I like that story line a lot.