Netflix has pulled way ahead of HBO in the battle for prestige TV dominance

The start of what could be a long reign.
The start of what could be a long reign.
Image: Netflix
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After several years of stalemates, Netflix has opened up a dominant lead over rival HBO in Emmy nominations.

The streaming service earned 160 total nominations to HBO’s 107 this year. Over the previous three years, the two companies were never separated by more than 19 nominations. But now the 53-nomination gap Netflix created between it and its closest competitor signifies a changing of the guard.

For nearly two decades, HBO reigned supreme at the Emmys. The premium cable channel, known for hits like The Sopranos and Game of Thrones, earned the most nominations of any network 17 years in a row, from 2001 to 2017. In 2018, Netflix narrowly surpassed HBO, 112 to 108, before HBO briefly returned to the top last year with the help of the final season of Game of Thrones.

Now that Thrones is over, however, Netflix has built a lead that looks as though it will stick for awhile.

Netflix’s dominance comes with a number of caveats. First, the company spends more on content than any other network. It’s expected to spend $17 billion on its original shows and films in 2020. HBO, by contrast, will only spend about $2 billion this year.

Accordingly, Netflix makes a lot more TV shows than anyone else. The streaming service released nearly 400 original series and films in 2019, while HBO aired only a few dozen. More shows means more Emmy submissions, which means more chances to earn Emmy nominations.

But the shows still have to be good enough to win over Emmy voters. While the average HBO show is better than the average Netflix show, the two companies release roughly the same amount of acclaimed television (Quartz member exclusive). HBO just requires far fewer attempts than Netflix to get there. Netflix isn’t showing any signs of reducing its annual number of attempts at prestige TV.

HBO also had the show with the most individual nominations: Watchmen, with 26. (Netflix’s most-nominated show was the drama series Ozark, with 18). So while Netflix can boast its brand beat out HBO’s overall, HBO has bragging rights over the year’s most culturally significant series. HBO’s challenge will to be maintain that same level of quality as AT&T mandates the network start producing more content to compete with Netflix and other media companies.

What both Netflix and HBO can be happy about is that their Emmys battle is coming at the expense of traditional broadcast TV. US broadcast network NBC finished a distant third in nominations, with 47. In fact, Netflix’s 160 nominations were 39 more than all four major US broadcasters (NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox) combined.

This year marked the first time the best drama category did not include any series from one of those broadcast networks. Every nominee in the category came from either a cable channel or a streaming service. Netflix alone accounted for three of the eight nominated shows.

The winners will be decided Sept. 20. ABC, the network airing this year’s awards, has not yet decided if the event will take place virtually or in-person. Either way, history may look back at 2020 as the start of Netflix’s long Emmys reign.