Amazon's 2019 Emmys upsets — and HBO's near-domination — are a harbinger of TV's future

Big wins for "Fleabag" and "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" ruined what might otherwise have been a swan song for HBO. But the biggest loser of the night was the audience.
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By Ani Bundel

“Television has never been greater,” at least according to Sunday’s host-free Emmy’s telecast. And yet, even as TV’s biggest night handed out the self-congratulatory gold, nervous energy hung above the theater like a cloud. As one of the earliest, and most pointed jokes of the event stated, the 2019 Emmy’s were “$14.99 a month HBO versus $12.99 a month Netflix.” This was directly followed by a commercial for Disney+. It was an accidentally perfect summation of the actual ceremony, in which Netflix and HBO battled for much of the hardware — when both weren’t being upset by Amazon.

Even as TV’s biggest night handed out the self-congratulatory gold, nervous energy hung above the theater like a cloud.

It felt very much like a preview of the next decade of awards shows, especially once HBO finds itself rolled into WarnerMedia’s “HBO Max” streaming service. Although HBO has long been known as the premium cable network, its consolidation will likely transform it into another streaming content mine, in the same vein as Netflix. The endless ads for Apple TV+, Amazon and Netflix were sure to make viewers very aware of the continued shift away from broadcast as well.

From an entertainment perspective, the biggest story of the night was Amazon’s comedy domination. Last year, Amazon finally broke out of the third-place spot behind Netflix and Hulu in the awards derby with a sweep for the first season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” This year, the streaming service split its wins between “Maisel” and a surprise awards darling, the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant “Fleabag.” The series surprised everyone, taking home the top prize for best comedy, the award for best director, and dual wins for Waller-Bridge for writing and acting. (Waller-Bridge is only the second person to take home lead actress in a comedy and outstanding writing in the same year. The other was Tina Fey in 2008.)

Amazon’s dominance ruined what might otherwise have been a swan song for HBO. It arrived favored to sweep both comedy and drama categories with the final seasons of “Veep” and “Game of Thrones.” In the end, “Game of Thrones” grabbed outstanding drama for the final time, HBO’s “Chernobyl” won best limited series, and “Last Week Tonight for John Oliver” won outstanding variety series for the fourth year running. But with “Veep” trampled by “Fleabag,” and “Deadwood: The Movie” losing out to Netflix’s “Bandersnatch (Black Mirror),” for outstanding TV movie, HBO missed its chance to sweep every major category where it was eligible, something that hasn’t happened since the era of the Big Three networks in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Game of Thrones” didn’t win in most of its categories, losing out mostly to Netflix’s “Ozark,” but this disappointment will do little to dull the show's legacy. Over the past decade, “GOT” has racked up 59 Emmy wins out of 161 nominations — a benchmark that may never be broken.

The biggest loser of the night, meanwhile, was the audience, as the show was one of the worst in recent memory. The Primetime Emmys are shared among NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox, who air the ceremony in a round robin. This year was Fox’s turn.

Unfortunately, this is what one might politely call a rebuilding year for the network, after it was left behind by the 20th Century Fox merger with Disney. (Disney was unable to take over Fox because it already owns ABC and the FCC broadcast ownership rules forbid it from taking control of a second broadcast network.) Fox chose to forgo an official host, a move that was supposedly tied to the Oscars’ decision to go without a host in February.

But instead of just letting presenters get on with it, the show hired comedian Thomas Lennon to read snide voiceovers about the winners as they walked up, most of which were distracting when not downright questionable. It also ditched the more traditional orchestra in favor of irrelevant musical cues that had nothing to do with who won, undermining the moment for the actual honorees. Moreover, it embarrassingly dragged out people wearing “The Masked Singer” costumes multiple times.

Against the backdrop of emotional wins for “Pose” and “When They See Us” and powerful speeches from Michelle Williams, Patricia Arquette and others, Fox’s gimmicky execution felt strangely tone deaf. It also reinforced the reality that Fox had zero nominations and no reason to care about who did and didn’t win. The best one could say about the ceremony was that at least it ended on time.

By the time the current Emmys “wheel deal” contract ends in 2026, it may be time to reconsider restructuring the awards show's rotation to include more than just broadcast channels, which no longer seem as able to compete with the streaming giants. Television may never have been greater, but the landscape of where that greatness happens is changing.