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6 winners and 3 losers from the 2020 Emmy nominations

One of the winners is Quibi. Yes, really.

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A triptych of Regina King in Watchmen, Jason Bateman in Ozark, and the Quibi logo.
The big winners of the 2020 Emmy nominations included HBO’s Watchmen, Netflix’s Ozark, and ... Quibi?
HBO, Netflix, Quibi
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The race for the 2020 Emmy nominations occurred, largely, in a vacuum.

The Television Academy was honoring a TV season that had mostly happened as planned. The global outbreak of Covid-19 halted production on a handful of presumed Emmy contenders — FX’s Fargo season four chief among them — but by March, when the disease began shutting down production throughout the industry, work on almost all programming planned for the 2019-2020 TV season had wrapped.

Yet the vacuum the Emmys have been sucked into has nothing to do with production. It’s about campaigning.

Typically, Los Angeles and New York teem with events for members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences during the spring, each designed to bring in votes for various programs. Netflix traditionally rents out a giant space to show off props and costumes from its shows, while HBO blankets LA in “for your consideration” ads. And everybody — everybody — holds copious numbers of panels in which actors and showrunners extol the virtues of their programs.

In the Covid-19 world, however, all of that campaigning had to move online (save the billboards; those still popped up). And in the absence of mixers in which TV Academy members could talk with each other (and journalists) about what they were watching, it was hard to get a read on just what Emmy voters were actually checking out. Was The Mandalorian as popular with them as it had seemed to be with viewers? Had they checked out The Morning Show after Apple TV+ all but foisted it upon them? Was Normal People buzzy with voters or just with audiences? And were old favorites like The Handmaid’s Tale and Stranger Things doomed by having aired so long ago that their buzz had all but disappeared? The answers to those questions, respectively, turned out to be “yes,” “mostly yes,” “not really,” and “no.”

The answer more generally to what people were voting for this year seems to be “stuff they checked out on streaming.” Netflix led the nominations with a record-shattering 160 nominations. (The most nominations for a network in a year before this was HBO’s 137 nominations in 2019, when it was bolstered by the final season of Game of Thrones.) HBO netted just 107 nominations, but it boasted the year’s most-nominated program in the 26-times-nominated Watchmen. Both HBO and Netflix had drama series that received 18 nominations (the most in the category), thanks to Succession and Ozark. And Amazon Prime Video’s Marvelous Mrs. Maisel once again drew 20 nominations to lead the comedy categories.

By and large, these nominations — with a handful of mild surprises — conformed to what people expected. (Read the full list here and a short list of the top categories here.) Maybe Emmy campaigning matters less than anybody thinks. Maybe word of mouth and good buzz are still more important than anything else.

And with “word of mouth” as the biggest winner of the morning, let’s take a look at six winners and three losers from the 2020 Emmy nominations.

Winner: Netflix

A group of the kids from Stranger Things, facing the camera.
Remember Stranger Things season three? The Emmys sure did!

I am sure other networks will spin Netflix’s 160 nominations — and again, that’s 160 nominations — in this fashion: Because Netflix is, effectively, an entire studio rather than a TV network, its ability to compete in every single category across the board means that it has a built-in advantage at the Emmys that, say, ABC does not possess. A better comparison point would be to add up all of the Disney-owned properties with Emmy nominations: ABC and FX Networks and Hulu and ESPN and National Geographic and Disney Channel and Disney+. That would allow you to compare apples to apples, one media empire to another.

I did just that, and I ended up with 126 nominations across the Disney family. That’s not bad! It beats Netflix’s total of 117 from last year (which at the time was the most nominations in Netflix’s history), and it beats WarnerMedia’s total of 120 from this year. (WarnerMedia boasts HBO’s 107 nominations, so that company had a substantial head start.) Great work, everybody!

Except ... neither of those giant entertainment conglomerates came within 30 nominations of Netflix’s 160. And, yeah, I’m sure we could still point to categories where Netflix can credibly compete — like variety special, where standup comedy tends to do well — that, say, Disney can’t yet. I’m sure if Disney or WarnerMedia were eligible in as many categories as Netflix is, it would be a closer race.

But 160 nominations. And often for shows you probably haven’t thought about in a while. Like, remember The Kominsky Method? It got three nominations, including Best Comedy Series. How about Stranger Things? Doesn’t that feel like it aired its most recent season 17 years ago? Well, that season received eight nominations. That’s the fewest the show has ever garnered when eligible, but hey, it still cracked Best Drama Series, and Netflix will gladly add those eight nominations to its pile.

And that’s before you even get to something like 18 nominations for Ozark or the out-of-nowhere nine nominations for Limited Series Unorthodox, alongside four for Unbelievable. (Netflix was the home of any limited series starting with “un,” apparently.) It’s impossible to look at this nominees list and not be impressed by Netflix’s dominance.

Winner: All other streaming platforms, honestly

As mentioned, this was the year of “stuff people were watching while stuck at home,” which meant streaming had a very good year. Hulu grabbed 26 nominations, compared to 20 in 2019 (and if you “count” FX on Hulu’s nominations toward Hulu’s total — though they’re more properly FX nominations — that number goes even higher). What’s more, it saw strong support for shows like Ramy and The Great, which just missed the Comedy Series category but got major nominations in acting, writing, and directing.

Prime Video fell substantially to 30 nominations from 47, but it didn’t have Fleabag this year, and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel got another 20 nominations for a season I had all but forgotten existed, so call it a wash.

The real surprises were how well new streaming platforms performed. Apple TV+ grabbed 18 nominations, including eight for The Morning Show (though no Drama Series nomination). And Disney+ did one better than that with 19 nominations, including a groundbreaking Drama Series nomination for The Mandalorian. No streaming platform has ever cracked the Drama Series race in its first year eligible. (Netflix’s first year eligible was technically 2012, but it only really started ramping up its campaign once House of Cards debuted in 2013. So this is a technicality, but I’m inclined to give Disney+ the win.)

It’s all further evidence of something that’s already abundantly clear: Streaming is king.

Loser: AMC, FX, and Showtime

Cate Blanchett stars in Mrs. America.
Cate Blanchett starred as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America.
Sabrina Lantos/FX

In a vacuum, none of these networks did all that poorly. FX Networks actually gained a nomination — 33 in 2020 compared to 32 in 2019 — and it saw terrific nomination hauls from Mrs. America and What We Do in the Shadows. (Boo to the Academy’s continued ignorance of the brilliant Better Things, however.) You could also argue if FX had gotten Fargo on the air as planned, it would have had closer to 50 nominations. But the network fell out of the Drama Series running when Pose was snubbed, and all in all, it felt like FX had a bit of an off year at the awards.

AMC fell by only one nomination, to eight from 2019’s nine. And, yeah, Showtime collapsed to four nominations from 2019’s 18, but it also didn’t have anything as Emmy-friendly as the limited series Escape at Dannemora, which was eligible last year.

But the ways in which these once-and-future Emmy powerhouses struggled a bit in 2020 nods toward how the TV landscape is changing. The broadcast networks had a soft year as well, but we’re not used to thinking of the broadcast networks as Emmy players anymore because cable so thoroughly supplanted them as the Emmy centerpiece. Now the same thing is happening to cable as streaming takes over. RIP to cable’s Emmy dominance, except ...

Winner: HBO forever!!!

Yeah, HBO’s 107 nominations don’t come close to how many Netflix picked up, but the way HBO got those nominations is instructive. Rather than spread a whole bunch of nominations across a whole bunch of content, as Netflix did, HBO’s nominations were centered on a smaller number of programs. That will cause headaches when it’s 2021 and Watchmen is no longer eligible. But in 2020, Watchmen got 26 nominations, the most of any program. It’s good to be HBO!

Here’s what I mean by this: Having more nominations gives you a better shot at winning, especially if those nominations include lots of actors (actors are the biggest branch in the TV academy and, thus, the biggest voting bloc). For instance, of Watchmen’s 26 nominations, six are for acting. It seems like the strong favorite to win Limited Series and probably the most awards on Emmy night.

Here’s an even better comparison: Both Netflix’s Ozark and HBO’s Succession received 18 nominations, making them the prohibitive favorites in Drama Series. Ozark received three acting nominations, which is great. Succession received nine. All of this is to say: Netflix’s nomination game is strong, but HBO has better positioned itself for wins, particularly in major categories.

And most importantly: HBO secured a nomination for Zendaya in Euphoria, a fact I note because a) Zendaya is the best, and b) my editor loves Zendaya and will appreciate this shoutout. [Ed. note: She does, and she did.]

Winner: Schitt’s Creek

Everybody in this photo is an Emmy nominee now.
Pop TV

Just a year ago, Schitt’s Creek’s surprise handful of Emmy nominations (including three in the big-name Comedy Series, Actor in a Comedy, and Actress in a Comedy categories) seemed like they had come out of nowhere.

Yet in 2020, for the show’s final season, Schitt’s Creek garnered 15 total nominations, including nominations for its four main stars, its directing, and its writing (twice). Its better-than-expected performance suggests it and Maisel will battle for the Comedy Series crown — and honestly, who would have thought that possible as recently as 18 months ago?

The Schitt’s Creek success is a stealth Netflix success, too, as the streaming platform boosted the show’s profile enough that a campaign was even possible. But Netflix didn’t campaign for the show. That task fell to humble Pop TV, which outdid itself.

Loser: Modern Family

Remember Modern Family? Did you know it aired its final season in the 2019-20 TV season? It did! And sometimes a final season of an Emmy favorite is accompanied by an Emmy bump, like when Frasier won a handful of major awards (including for its stars Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce) in its final year.

But Modern Family saw no such luck. Yeah, its three nominations were an improvement over 2019’s one nomination. But this is a show that received double-digit nominations and won Comedy Series across its first five seasons. That it’s descended this far suggests just how far it’s fallen from the Emmys’ attention.

Loser: Assorted other Emmy favorites

Among the most surprising snubs of Emmy morning were Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks of Better Call Saul and Elisabeth Moss of The Handmaid’s Tale. Odenkirk and Banks had been nominated numerous times before for their Saul roles (with Banks receiving a nomination for the same character on Breaking Bad), while Moss actually won for the first season of Handmaid’s. You could argue that the buzz for both shows was muted this season — in the case of Handmaid’s because season three aired so long ago, and in the case of Saul because the season aired right in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak — but the snubs are still surprising.

Winner: What We Do in the Shadows

Nothing — and I mean nothing — delighted me more in the nominations list than the eight nominations for FX’s weirdo vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, which seems to have broken into the Comedy Series category thanks to love from writers (who nominated it three times, the most for any comedy series). The show is glorious, goofy, and incredibly bizarre. It’s the sort of thing the Emmys normally stay far, far away from, but it’s also one of the funniest shows on TV right now. It’s nice to see it garner the recognition it deserves.

Winner: Quibi

Quibi might be a complete disaster as a platform, but it got 10 Emmy nominations in the otherwise sparsely competitive shortform categories, including eight of the 10 nominations in the two shortform acting categories. Quibi: Things are looking up!

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