Will Netflix outgun the networks at the Golden Globes in TV’s cultural revolution?

The season’s first awards ceremony will reveal whether streaming TV is now the industry’s dominant force

On Sunday afternoon, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, the Golden Globes will kick off America’s award season in earnest. In the days leading up to the event, conversation in this entertainment industry-obsessed town has largely centred on which actors host Ricky Gervais, returning after a three-year absence, will manage to offend in his opening monologue and whether this is Leonardo DiCaprio’s year after his punishing turn in The Revenant.

The biggest debate of all, however, concerns television rather than film. This was the first year that the streaming service Netflix won more nominations than the cable giant HBO – by eight to seven – and the first time since 2000 that HBO has not topped the nominations board.

Adding to the sense of a changing of the guard, the three major American TV streaming services (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu) gained 14 nominations combined, while NBC, the network channel that hosts the Golden Globes, received none. Netflix also scored its first film nominations for Beasts of No Nation, serving notice that its ambitions have expanded to include original film as well as television.

So does the future belong to streaming channels? And if so, what does that mean? “I feel like there are two different businesses right now,” says Alec Berg, writer and co-creator of HBO’s Silicon Valley, which is nominated for best comedy. “One is the pipe that things go through [the TV companies], the other is what goes through the pipe [the actual programmes] – and I wouldn’t want to be in the pipe business right now.

“I think if you’d told someone in network TV five years ago that in five years’ time Netflix would be winning Emmys, dominating audiences and controlling popular culture they would have laughed at you. Now they’re out of business.”

Berg is partially joking about the extent of network woes, but it’s also true that in recent years Netflix and Amazon have changed the TV landscape as a result of a combination of money to spend, willingness to give talent free rein and the growing popularity of binge watching. For a generation of viewers, TV is something that happens on their time rather than the networks’, which, in turn, means that network ratings are continuing to decline. Or as the New York Times’s James Poniewozik put it recently: “Traditional television assumes your time is scarce and it has you for a few precious hours before bed. The streaming services assume they own your free time, whenever it comes – travel, holidays, weekends – to fill with five- and 10-hour entertainments.”

And it’s working. Last September a report in Ad Age stated that, “according to Nielsen [the company that tracks US TV ratings] … every returning Tuesday night drama suffered double-digit ratings declines” largely because “younger viewers are ditching traditional TV faster than anyone could have anticipated”.

Small wonder then that the Globes, which prides itself on being ahead of the curve (with mixed results, including the year Johnny Depp was nominated for best actor for the lamentable The Tourist) is jumping on the streaming bandwagon. What’s more surprising is how these shows are dominating, and where.

While the drama category remains evenly distributed with nods for HBO’s fantasy behemoth Game of Thrones, Starz’s time travel romance Outlander, Netflix’s ambitious but flawed thriller Narcos, Fox’s hip hop soap opera Empire and basic cable channel USA’s critically acclaimed Mr Robot (like Outlander available on Amazon in the UK), the comedy category is dominated by streaming channels, which have claimed four of the five spots, with Silicon Valley sneaking in for HBO in the fifth slot.

In a category that used to belong to the traditional sitcom, there isn’t a network comedy to be seen; instead nods have gone to Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, Amazon’s Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle and Hulu’s Jason Reitman comedy Casual. That dominance can largely be attributed to the tonal risks that these shows are prepared to take, mixing humour with darkness to create programmes that feel fresh, exciting and closer to the weird reality of life.

Similarly, the success of streaming channels has opened up doors to writers who might otherwise have struggled to be noticed on regular TV. A basic cable channel such as USA probably wouldn’t have considered Sam Esmail’s twisted hacker story Mr Robot in the years before streaming channels existed, but with their success has come a willingness to take a punt on more esoteric subject matter (Mozart in the Jungle deals with the classical music industry in New York) and new voices. It’s no surprise therefore that when Aziz Ansari was asked on Reddit last autumn why he chose Netflix as the home for his much-praised comedy Master of None, he replied: “We pitched only to premium spots because we didn’t want to deal with content issues. On Netflix we never had one issue with content.”

Because streaming channels aren’t beholden to the traditional ratings-driven model, they can afford to take risks not just with a story but with the way it’s told. When you’re releasing all 10 episodes of a series at once, there is no need for the writer to worry about whether the story has to fit a certain mould. In this sense just as there is a growing trend for novels that are more TV box-set than book, so streaming channel series increasingly resemble novels in structure.

That model, however, is not without flaws – as the Golden Globes nominations demonstrate. The creators of these series are under no pressure to pull viewers back each week, do not have to respond to fan reaction or criticism and have no notes from their network about what might work or what’s bloated or rambling.

Perhaps because of this, streaming services have produced an array of ground-breaking comedies and comedy dramas but have yet to come up with a serialised drama with the heft or vision of HBO classics such as The Wire, Deadwood or The Sopranos. Their shows are arguably designed to be consumed in an obsessive rush rather than withstanding repeated scrutiny and, as with any binge, the aftermath can leave you feeling less sated than slightly overindulged.

Not that these issues are likely to curb Netflix’s growing ambitions or force it to reconsider its logarithm-based model that takes into account which programmes or films are most popular on its site and then reacts to that. Its new dramas for 2016 include such awards-bait as Peter Morgan’s The Crown, a 10-part series about the monarchy starring Claire Foy as Elizabeth and Matt Smith as a young Philip and The Get Down, Baz Luhrmann’s take on the music industry in New York in the 70s, a show that is in competition with the Scorsese-directed and Jagger-produced music industry drama Vinyl, also set in the 70s, which starts on HBO next month.

The superficial similarities between those two dramas suggest a desire on Netflix’s part to go head-to-toe with the cable giant, but how big a threat are they really? A report last autumn from data-science company Parrot Analytics found that, if you removed Game of Thrones from the mix, then in three global markets – the US, the UK and Australia – Netflix and HBO titles had “similar levels of demand”, with the former increasingly dominant in the UK. In the US, however, the gap has yet to close entirely, thanks in part to the launch of the HBO Now streaming service, which can be seen both as a successful attempt to play Netflix at its own game and a reminder of the amount of quality programming – from classics such as Six Feet Under to acclaimed recent dramas such as The Leftovers – that HBO has at its disposal.

It’s also the case that gathering nominations is not the same as grasping the Globe. HBO might have claimed fewer nominations than previous years, but it has a strong chance of victory in many categories. Game of Thrones is the narrow favourite in the drama category thanks to a first non-technical Emmy win in 2015 (although it’s true that the ever unpredictable Globes may favour the innovative Mr Robot); Silicon Valley is hugely popular and either David Oyelowo or Oscar Isaac could grab the best actor in a limited series category for The Nightingale or Show Me A Hero respectively. Should any of them land victory then all the talk about the Netflix Globes and the changing future of TV will turn out to be just that. Winning, as Isaac’s driven and desperate Yonkers politician would tell you, is the only thing that counts.


Sarah Hughes in Los Angeles

The GuardianTramp

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