Fifteen years doesn’t seem that long ago, but for the television industry, 1998 may as well be the Dark Ages. One only needs to look at that year’s Emmy nominees for Outstanding Drama Series to realize just how much the landscape has changed. The Practice took home the ceremony’s most prestigious trophy, edging ER, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files. Turns out, it was the last time — ever, most likely — that all the nominees for Outstanding Drama “aired” on television. That is to mean that they were broadcast by one of the major free-TV network stations.
The following year, The Sopranos joined the exclusive nominee club, and even though The Practice repeated as Outstanding Drama, television has never been the same. David Chase’s HBO “family” drama would break through in 2004, winning the first of its two Emmys for Outstanding Drama, and shows like Six Feet Under, Deadwood, Damages, Dexter, Mad Men, Big Love, True Blood, and Breaking Bad went on to prove that cable was simply the superior sandbox for creative, compelling television. Last year, none of the six nominees for Outstanding Drama were network shows, an occurrence repeated this morning that reinforces network’s fleeting chances, especially since House of Cards‘ nomination signals the next trend in television consumption.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some great dramas on network television. In fact, I almost think some network dramas would’ve received great critical attention if they simply had the cachet of a cable network behind them. Take Hannibal, for example. It’s a deliciously dark take on Thomas Harris’ famous characters, with two dynamic performances from Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelson. Would the show have received more Emmy love if it was on Showtime? Ditto for Scandal if it was on FX? Have we now reached the point where we’re discounting shows simply for being on 20th-century television?
I don’t expect the Academy will ever resort to a tiered award system, separating network shows from cable shows — and I wouldn’t want them to. But after shutting out the networks for two straight years (yes, PBS has Downton Abbey, but even that period drama originated elsewhere), we need some way to honor the best programs on free TV.