Emmys show ‘Big Four’ networks not dead yet

Story highlights

Ed Bark: Emmy nominations indicated Big Four networks were going to be losers again

Bark: But an unusually high percentage of trophies went to traditional networks this year

Broadcast networks won marquee categories, he said, matching or exceeding HBO

Bark: Could be a fluke or a last stand as more cable outlets make original, quality series

Editor’s Note: Ed Bark, former longtime TV critic with The Dallas Morning News, blogs about TV at the website unclebarky.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

CNN  — 

Maybe it was just a case of delaying the inevitable during Monday’s 66th Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony.

Having showered an array of major nominations on cable, Netflix and movie stars while seeming to further diminish the so-called “Big Four” broadcast networks, Emmy voters in a sense recanted on the big night.

Eleven of the 25 trophies – an unusually high percentage these days – went to traditional over-the-air networks, while Netflix and the marquee movie stars got shut out. As they’ve tended to do in the past, voters instead rinsed and repeated by rewarding previous winners.

Ed Bark

The six main categories are instructive.

AMC’s “Breaking Bad” defended last year’s championship in the Best Drama Series as it knocked off HBO’s much-heralded “True Detective,” which won just one Emmy all night.

In the Best Comedy Series, ABC’s “Modern Family” prevailed for the fifth year in a row, tying the record set by NBC’s “Frasier.” Netflix’s drama-fueled “Orange is the New Black,” which entered itself in this category, did go to jail but did not collect any Emmys.

Julianna Margulies added to the broadcast network glow by winning a second Lead Actress in a Drama Series Emmy, this time for her role in CBS’ “The Good Wife.”

For the first time at any of this year’s major awards ceremonies, Matthew McConaughey came away empty-handed in the Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his showy role in HBO’s “True Detective.” Bryan Cranston out dueled him and won his fourth Emmy for “Breaking Bad.”

It was Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ night once more in winning Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. She won her third Emmy for HBO’s “Veep,” and now is the only actress to take home the lead prize in three comedy series – including NBC’s “Seinfeld” and CBS’ “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”

CBS and Jim Parsons combined again in the Lead Actor in a Comedy Series category. Parsons has now won four Emmys for “The Big Bang Theory,” which is still television’s runaway most popular comedy series on all “platforms.”

For those of you keeping score, half of these marquee Emmys went to the traditional broadcast networks and each winner was a repeater.

In what seem like prehistoric times, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox used to dominate “television’s biggest night” before flaunting their Emmy wins as promotional springboards for the new fall season.

NBC famously inserted commercials within the 1981 primetime ceremony touting the mounting number of Emmy wins for its then ratings-starved first-year series, “Hill Street Blues.” The classic cop drama ended up winning six of NBC’s eight Emmys on that night. And in its second season, “Hill Street” vaulted from nearly dead last to a top 30 finish in the yearly primetime Nielsen ratings.

Cable networks, led by HBO, began flexing muscles in the 1990s, though. Series such as “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” became Emmy darlings while HBO’s movies were perennial winners.

At last year’s major Emmy ceremony, HBO led all networks with seven wins, as other cable networks and Netflix combined for another 12 statues. That left the broadcast networks with just six wins out of the 25 major Emmys awarded. Whether it carries over or not – and chances are it won’t – Monday night’s 11 broadcast network wins are an overall morale boost compared with recent outcomes.

Also left at Emmy’s altar Monday night was movie star Billy Bob Thornton, an early favorite for his villainous lead role in FX’s “Fargo.” But the “Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie” Emmy went to Benedict Cumberbatch for his title role in PBS’ “Sherlock: His Last Vow.”

Emmy host Seth Meyers had measured the traditional broadcast networks for a coffin early in his opening monologue. “MTV still has an award for music videos even though they no longer show music videos,” he joked. “That’s like network TV holding an awards show and giving all the trophies to cable and Netflix. That would be crazy. Why would they do that?”

Meyers could have been speaking for host network NBC, which was shut out Monday night along with Fox. But old-liner CBS ended up in a three-way tie for the most Emmys, at five, with cable’s AMC and FX. HBO, accustomed to walking away as Emmy’s top dog, won just three Emmys to tie it with broadcasters ABC and PBS.

The Netflix shutout, following nominations in five of the six marquee categories, may be a message that Emmy voters are not yet ready to swoon over the “world’s leading television Internet provider,” as it bills itself. Netflix still keeps its audience numbers secret for its streaming original series and also may have riled some voters by submitting “Orange is the New Black” as a comedy in what looked like a craven grab for Emmy gold.

Indeed, Meyers basked in sustained applause and cheers when he cracked, “We had comedies that made you laugh and comedies that made you cry because they were dramas submitted as comedies.”

In this Emmy year at least, the broadcast network contingent has something to cheer about, too. It might well be a last stand, with an increasing number of cable networks making original and praiseworthy drama or comedy series. But for one shining night, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that’s no small feat.

Read CNNOpinion’s new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.