The miniature statutes given at the Emmy Awards on Sunday can be an outsized boon to egos, careers and guessing games.
Will The Mandalorian bow to The Crown as best drama series? Can the feel-good comedy Ted Lasso charm its way into freshman glory? Will Jean Smart be honored as best comedy actress for Hacks? (She will.)
But there’s oh-so-much more at stake when the TV industry — or a pandemic-constrained slice of it — gathers to honor itself at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards.
The ceremony (8 p.m. EDT, CBS) is a snapshot of a business morphing into its 21st-century form; who we see or don’t see on the small screen, and the rapid splintering of TV and its viewers.
The obvious winners and losers are those to be revealed in 27 categories during the s how hosted by Cedric the Entertainer. But there’s more at stake than personal victories, and yardsticks of success or failure beyond trophies.
Here’s some of the outcomes and trends to watch for, both up close and wide-angle.
Streamers set to conquer
Streaming services are poised for a triumphant night that will cast further shade on the status of broadcast networks, including the big three ABC, CBS and NBC, and once-dominant cable channels such as HBO and Showtime.
“This is the year that the streamers will officially conquer Hollywood,” likely winning best drama and comedy series honors for the first time, said Tom O’Neil, editor of the Gold Derby predictions website and author of The Emmys.
Premium cable’s encroachment on turf once owned by broadcasting was gradual: HBO launched in 1972 and waited two decades for its first best series Emmy nod, earned by Garry Shandling’s comedy The Larry Sanders Show. It wasn’t until the 2000s arrived that Sex and the City and The Sopranos earned best series prizes.
In contrast, streaming is racing ahead with Ferrari-like speed, especially as the services multiply and shell out big bucks for shows aimed at winning over paying customers.
In 2017, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale became the first streamed series to win the best drama Emmy. The next year, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel scored a matching victory on the comedy side for Amazon, which won again in 2019 for Fleabag.
Victory is possible for either Netflix’s The Crown or the Disney+ series The Mandalorian, which topped the nods with 24 each. For Netflix, which launched its on-demand service in 2007 and fielded the first drama series nominee, House of Cards in 2014, patience would finally be rewarded.
For Disney+, the victory would be swift and sweet: it launched in November 2019. Apple TV+, which arrived the same year, could win its first top series award with Ted Lasso. If that happens, streaming’s prominence would be solidified with the one-two punch in the comedy and drama categories.
Room at the table
The push for diversity has moved at a grindingly slower pace than the digital revolution, but this year’s slate of nominees was unimaginable just a few years ago.
Of the 96 acting nods for drama, comedy and miniseries, nearly 44% — a total of 42 nominations — went to people of color. According to 2020 Census figures, white Americans make up just under 58% of the population.
Among this year’s groundbreakers: Mj Rodriguez of Pose, the first trans performer to be nominated in a lead acting category, and Bowen Yang of Saturday Night Live, the first Asian American to compete for best supporting comedy actor.
The top drama acting categories are particularly inclusive, and strikingly so in comparison to a decade ago when all of the 12 nominees for best actor and actress were white, with Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights) and Julianna Margulies (The Good Wife) the winners.
That was 2011, this is now. Black men make up a majority of the lead drama actor nominees, four of six, including past winners Sterling K. Brown for This Is Us and Pose star Billy Porter — the first openly gay man to win the category, in 2019.
Half of the six best-actress contenders are women of color. Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft Country) and Uzo Aduba (In Treatment) are Black, and Rodriguez is Afro Latina.
If the final test of inclusivity is who wins, the story could be different. The Crown stars Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin are considered frontrunners for their portrayals of ill-fated royal mates Charles and Diana.
Pandemic, Part 2
Constraints can breed inventiveness.
Last year’s all-virtual ceremony included a defining lockdown moment: Hazmat-suited trophy couriers who loitered outside nominees’ homes until their categories were called, either handing over the award or taking it disappointingly away.
“Somebody mentioned (the idea) in a meeting as kind of as a joke, and then it was constantly needling away at us and we decided that it could be a great way to do it,” recalled Guy Carrington, a producer for the 2020 Emmys.
This year, about 500 nominees and guests will gather under a glammed-up tent in downtown L.A., with COVID-19 precautions including a vaccine requirement and testing. There are big names among the presenters, including Angela Bassett, Michael Douglas, Dolly Parton and Awkwafina, but at least one star, Jennifer Aniston, was candid about staying away because of virus concerns.
Reginald Hudlin and Ian Stewart, executive producers for the telecast, said they approached the reduced attendance as an opportunity.
Instead of being confined in a theater seat, guests will be at tables and part of what sounds like an oversized dinner party — with drinks and snacks allowed — and encouraged to mingle.
“To have the industry come out and sit together and see each other, it is a celebration,” said Stewart.
Hello, is anyone out there?
Ratings for awards show, from Oscars to the Grammys, have been steadily declining in recent years and hit new depths during the pandemic. Despite honoring the TV shows that kept us company through COVID’s darkness, the Emmys weren’t exempt.
After hitting a record-low viewership of just under 7 million in 2019, last year’s telecast tumbled further to 6.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
Part of it is simply awards overload, with upstart, dime-a-dozen ceremonies taking the luster off the major ones, including the 94-year-old, grande dame Oscars and the Emmys, which turn 73 on Sunday.
Then there’s the shows’ sheer length. A leisurely, three-hour telecast, commercials included, was expected and tolerated in the old TV world. In the new one, viewers are more inclined to check out an event’s highlights online and at will.
But as Hudlin sees it, social media can give as well as take.
“If you deliver a show that works, if people say, ‘Oh, are you watching the Emmys thing? It’s kind of cool,’ all of a sudden people start tuning in because you’re talking about it like, ‘Yo, this is crazy,'” Hudlin said. “So we like to keep it crazy.”
Details were under wraps, but there will be music: Reggie Watts, band leader for The Late Late Show with James Corden, is the night’s DJ.
The event’s producers also recognize that niche shows on cable and streaming may be unfamiliar to many viewers, especially those who favor network shows such as ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy or CBS’ The Neighborhood — the latter starring Emmy host Cedric the Entertainer.
“We have gone to a lot of those mainstream, well-known actors, actresses and people in the industry to be presenters so that we do reflect popular television,” Stewart said.