Netflix's original series "House of Cards" received 9 Emmy nominations this morning including in 3 of the marquee categories best drama, best actor (Kevin Spacey) and best actress (Robin Wright). The nominations were a first for online original programming and therefore are a bona fide milestone for the rapidly growing online video medium. In addition, Netflix picked up 3 Emmy nominations for "Arrested Development."
While Netflix bet big to put HoC in a league with cable stalwarts - and other best drama nominees "Game of Thrones," "Breaking Bad," "Homeland" and "Mad Men" plus the lone broadcast series "Downton Abbey" - an intriguing question to ask is whether the HoC nominations signal the beginning of an Emmy trend for online original programs or whether HoC is more of an outlier? In other words, can online get on the same type of award-winning growth curve for its originals as cable networks have over the last 20 years, helping drive pay-TV subscriber acquisition and retention?
For now, I think the answer is "no," for one simple reason: online's economics are not yet mature enough to support the expensive production budgets required for Emmy winners. For sure, online video advertising is growing, but the golden nugget of pay-TV - the combination of both advertising AND subscription revenue, has not yet developed in online. That makes expensive Emmy-quality programming beyond the reach of online properties that today are reliant mainly on ads (for further proof of the limits of being ad-only, see how as-supported broadcast has been swamped by cable in marquee Emmy categories).
Absent this dual revenue model, in the online world Emmy-quality originals will be mainly the domain of successful subscription services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon which can be compared to premium cable networks like HBO, Showtime and Starz. Of these, Netflix seems by far the most likely contender; Hulu's owners are once again sorting out their strategy in the wake of another failed sale and Hulu's originals have been shorter-form and smaller budget, Amazon is just now dipping its toe into the originals scene. Even Netflix's prospects for future Emmy success must be tempered in the context of its ambitious overall strategy and finite financial resources. Funding its huge losses from international expansion, aggressive content licensing agenda and ongoing marketing to grow subscribers are all very resource-intensive, limiting Netflix's ability to spend $100 million or more on HoC-style Emmy qualifiers.
Add it all up and the prospects, at this point, for online to become a near-term consistent contender for Emmy nominations seem slim. What could change the picture? Things like an acceleration in cord-cutting, which could siphon consumer payments to online, deep-pocketed investors moving into online and deciding Emmy programming would be strategically beneficial and the perhaps the rise of connected devices that move the online experience deeper into the living room all could help.
This is not to take anything aware from the vitality and breadth of today's online originals, which are proliferating. But since virtually all are short-form and ad-supported, moving up to the Emmy league does not appear close on the horizon. For now HoC is an outlier.