In a normal year we’d be talking about the 75th Emmy Awards telecast this week: who wore what, whose speech went too long and which of the lauded shows took home the night’s biggest haul. But the awards telecast was postponed to January, in hopes that the writers’ and actors’ strikes will be resolved by then, so we’ll have to wait a few more months to celebrate what was a remarkable year in TV. Twenty-seven nominations for the final season of “Succession” alone, including 14 nominated acting performances. Prestige heavyweights like “Better Call Saul,” “The White Lotus,” “The Last of Us” and “The Crown” all duking it out — and that’s just in the outstanding drama category. What a lineup! What a year!
But the 2023 Emmys may ultimately be remembered less as a celebration than as a wake. Even before the twin strikes that have brought Hollywood production to a halt, prestige TV — that unofficial genre of quality programming that’s become a mainstay of the past 20 years — had a critical, and possibly terminal, diagnosis. Now it seems all but assured that when Hollywood resumes business, the landmark era defined by shows like “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire” and all their celebrated heirs will be over for good.
Start with the shows that are bowing out: Emmy mainstays like “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Better Call Saul” and “Succession” have all ended their runs, and the newer Emmy parvenus, such as the comedies “Abbott Elementary” and “Jury Duty,” while excellent, harken back to an earlier, mass-market era of television that was dominated by sitcoms and hourlong procedurals.
I left Amazon Studios in 2017 (after accusations I dispute), and five years later, the larger industry picture looks exceedingly bleak. In the last year nearly every major studio, from Warner Bros. to Paramount, has announced layoffs and write-offs. The legacy broadcast business, which was for decades the industry’s bread and butter, now, in the Disney chief executive Bob Iger’s ominous phrase, “may not be core.” HBO, long the standard-bearer for TV excellence, had its name unceremoniously scrubbed when the streaming service HBO Max became simply Max. Streaming, that sexy business model that the entire industry fell for, is turning out to be very expensive and not nearly as much fun as was imagined. Disney+ has lost subscribers for two consecutive quarters. Amazon was plagued by reports that its big investment in a “Lord of the Rings” series yielded disappointing viewership numbers. Over it all, the specter of A.I. looms like a dementor at the window of a party. When people do get back to work, they’ll be looking for safe, surefire hits.
To truly understand prestige TV’s peril in context, though, you have to go back 30 years to the moment of its birth: “The Larry Sanders Show.” HBO rolled “Sanders” out in 1992 and it went on to earn 56 Emmy nominations over the next six years. It was not a hit by broadcast standards, but it was a show people in hip circles talked about. Many of its key writers and producers, including Judd Apatow and Steve Levitan, went on to broadly influence TV and film comedy. “Sanders” was a single-camera sitcom with no laugh track that featured knowing meta-dialogue and self-aware celebrity cameos. So real. So harsh. So funny.
Inspired by the critical praise it received, cable TV outlets — HBO, yes, but also Showtime and, later, FX — scaled up at the end of the ’90s to produce edgier shows like “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City” and “Oz.” By airing on pay cable, these shows were freed from F.C.C. restrictions on language, sex and violence — and they made good use of that freedom. From the business side, the urban tastemakers who cared about shows like “Sanders” and “The Sopranos” were also the most likely to shell out extra for a subscription TV service. Thus, the prestige era was born. The slogan “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” summed it up: Prestige TV was trying to be, as was sometimes said, “filmovision” — as dark and true to life or shockingly violent as necessary. It was television with no limits.
When streamers started producing their own shows, they followed the same model. Netflix made a mark with “House of Cards,” “Orange Is the New Black” and “BoJack Horseman,” and at Amazon we launched “Transparent,” “Fleabag” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The goal was attention and acclaim — and it worked. In 2015, “Transparent” was the first streaming show to win a best series award at the Golden Globes. By 2021, the streamers claimed the majority of outstanding comedy and outstanding drama Emmy nominations, with “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+) and “The Crown” (Netflix) each winning. Yet none of these shows ever reached the huge audiences found by network hits like “The Big Bang Theory” or “Dancing With the Stars.”
Now the pendulum is swinging back toward shows with lower prestige but higher viewership. On Max, “Game of Thrones” and “Succession” share a home with “House Hunters” and “Dr. Pimple Popper.” While audiences still get the occasional edgy exception, like “The Bear” and “Squid Game,” there’s been a surge in conventional programming like tween shows and true crime.
If you’re in Hollywood, don’t bother pitching the next “Billions,” “Succession,” “Downton Abbey” or “Mad Men” — that’s considered too 1 percent. The next “Transparent” or “Atlanta”? Too small. And forget about the next “Curb Your Enthusiasm” or “Entourage.” That kind of comedy is far too niche for today’s marketplace. Edgy is out. Mass is in.
The problem with this move toward more broadly appealing programming — what some have called “CBS-ification” — is that mass-appeal shows aren’t what inspired millions of people to subscribe to these services in the first place. In fact, mass appeal shows may have the opposite effect: For 30 years, viewers have been taught that expensive prestige shows like “Game of Thrones” are what you pay for and shows like “Wheel of Fortune” are what you get on broadcast for free. If Netflix added, say, 5,000 hours of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Days of Our Lives” to its platform, it would likely increase total viewing hours, but it could erode the notion that the service is worth paying for in the first place. Yet many streaming services are raising their prices right now, in part to drive subscribers to cheaper, ad-supported tiers that promise additional advertising revenue.
I can imagine three possibilities for TV as we go forward. One is that prestige TV will be consigned to a specific moment in history, like the socially conscious sitcoms of the 1960s and ’70s. Another possibility is that auteur-style shows will live on, but they won’t dominate the TV conversation, and they’ll be fewer and harder to find.
Then there’s a third possibility. Maybe the big streamers’ increased focus on mass appeal will make room for a whole new species of TV — scrappy new voices that target the suddenly underserved demand for daring drama and comedy. The success of the film studio A24 is a testament to how curatorial taste can quickly establish a devoted, if niche, following. After all, that’s how HBO became HBO: by coming to represent something more than TV. If a new entity arises, we will have come full circle. And that entity may just clean up at the Emmys.
Roy Price is the chief executive of International Art Machine, an entertainment studio, and was formerly the head of Amazon Studios.
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