David Zurawik

Netflix rising to TV top with Emmy nominations for 'Cards,' 'Orange'

All kinds of impressive numbers were flying around last week in the wake of Emmy nominees being announced. HBO ran up an industry-leading 99 nominations overall with 19 for its gory and glorious "Game of Thrones" alone.

But the numbers that got me thinking were 31 nominations for Netflix, the Internet television network most widely known for Baltimore-made "House of Cards," and 26 for AMC, the home of "Breaking Bad" and "Mad Men," the epitome of quality drama series in the view of many.

For basic cable, AMC and FX, which earned 45 nominations, are as good as it gets. And Netflix has already surpassed one and gained on the other after only two seasons of "House" and one of "Orange Is the New Black" — series that now give the Internet TV channel a legitimate shot at having the best drama and comedy on television.

That's real change to me, especially when you consider that 35 of FX's nominations came from two productions ("Fargo" and "American Horror Story") entered in the miniseries category, a much weaker realm than those of best comedy and drama, where Netflix competed. The previous high in nominations for FX was 26.

Last year, analysts got excited about "House" earning major nominations for its first season as best drama and best actor (Kevin Spacey) and actress (Robin Wright). Terms such as "game change," "watershed" and "historic" were flying all over the place in Emmy-awards-show preview pieces — mine included.

When "House" won none of the above, everyone acted a little disappointed, even though the political thriller made history by nature of being the first online-only production to win a major Emmy (David Fincher for best direction). We wanted the image of the producers and cast on the podium holding the trophy for best drama as a neat and tidy symbol of an epic shift in media distribution and reception: Here's the moment TV moved from cable to the Internet.

But if we know anything from the history of media, we should know that's not the way media change happens.

No one can tell you the day or even the year TV eclipsed radio. TV surpassed radio on a variety of fronts from advertising dollars to prime-time audiences in the 1950s, but radio morphed into various formats that still survive and thrive in their own right. Media change is always evolutionary despite the power of new technology.

Netflix has continued to evolve and grow. The channel more than doubled its 14 nominations from last year, thanks to "House" going from 9 to 13 nominations, while "Orange" added 12 nominations. They ranged across the board for both series.

Beyond duplicating the best drama, actor, actress and directing nominations, "House" added nominations for best writing (creator Beau Willimon) and best guest actor (Reg E. Cathey) and actress (Kate Mara). The nominations also included ones for art direction, cinematography and editing.

"The entire cast, crew and production team is thrilled by our nominations," Willimon said in a statement last week.

"We all found out while lighting our first set-up of the day here in Maryland, and the news made the set even brighter," he continued. "It's an honor to receive so much recognition from our peers in the TV Academy. I'm particularly happy for Kevin and Robin — the two stars which bring such radiance to our show. And equally excited by all of the nominations for Netflix. They've changed the TV landscape and we're proud to be on their team."

"Orange Is the New Black" earned nominations for outstanding comedy series, writing and directing, while Taylor Schilling and Kate Mulgrew were nominated for lead and supporting actress, respectively.

The series about life in a women's prison topped HBO's political satire "Veep" in total nominations, 12 to 9 – and Baltimore-made "Veep" is a brilliant comedic production. It will be interesting to see how Shilling does against Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the best actress competition. Louis-Dreyfus has won more Emmys than any comic performer in TV history.

"We are overwhelmed with thirty-one nominations in our sophomore year, which acknowledges the fullest spectrum of our programming," Ted Sarandos, the architect of Netflix's original programming strategy, said in a statement. "Television has never been better, and we are honored to be in such groundbreaking company."

"House of Cards" and, to a lesser extent, "Orange Is the New Black" are groundbreaking. Sarandos bought two seasons of "House" without a pilot — based only on script and talent. That has never been done in the history of television. That's how it wound up on Netflix instead of HBO, which for all its outside-the-box thinking, would never make such a deal even with the likes of Spacey, Fincher and Willimon on board.

The Netflix business model, furthermore, is HBO's subscription-based approach taken to the Internet — a canny evolution. Since Netflix has withheld metrics, no one can say with certainty how well its distribution plan is working — except that the price of Netflix stock has shown steady growth since the debut of "House." And stock price is the ultimate bottom line on the success or failure of any business plan, isn't it?

The obvious truth from last week's Emmy nominations is that nobody plays the Emmy game like HBO. It's as true today as it was 15 years ago that the premium cable channel still controls the quality TV table thanks to movies like "The Normal Heart," based on the Larry Kramer play of the same title, and daring productions like "True Detective," starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey.

But that's with a business model that is getting dangerously long in the tooth for today's rapidly changing landscape. The less obvious truth is that Netflix now owns the pole position when it comes to the future of television. It's no longer merely a contender. That was last year's storyline. The online channel is now an established purveyor of quality programming.

I don't want to overstate the case. Don't expect Netflix to top HBO — not at this year's Emmys, anyway.

And don't bet on that simple-minded snapshot of producers and crew holding up the trophy as best drama Aug. 25 at the end of the Emmy telecast. The competition is super-steep with "Breaking Bad," "Downton Abbey" (PBS), "Game of Thrones" (HBO), "Mad Men" (AMC) and "True Detective" (HBO).

The competition in comedy is almost as daunting with "Orange" facing off against "Veep" (HBO),"The Big Bang Theory" (CBS), "Louie" (FX), "Modern Family" (ABC) and "Silicon Valley" (HBO).

But surpassing AMC, gaining on FX and getting within shouting distance of HBO last week is good enough for now.

It's more than good enough, in fact, when you have two of the most talked-about series in American culture — and every indication that the future of TV viewing is yours.