HBO’s Emmy Dominance Proves the Value of Risk Despite Turbulent Cable Company and Leadership

HBO dominating the Emmy nominations is hardly a surprise, given both historical trends and the year they’ve had. But it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.

Amid endless media speculation around the cuts and bad P.R. missteps of Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav, HBO — notionally the jewel in the crown of the newly-formed WBD’s television empire — cleaned up. In the best drama race, HBO picked up a startling four nominations (for “House of the Dragon,” “The Last of Us,” “Succession” and “The White Lotus”). In a happy coincidence, those four nominations, which tie an all-time record, represented the two halves of what HBO has lately done well, between pushing IP-driven storytelling to new heights in the cases of “House of the Dragon” and “The Last of Us” and turning carefully wrought, creator-driven drama into organic zeitgeist hits with “Succession” and “The White Lotus.”

The success in the drama field somewhat overshadows HBO’s strength elsewhere, too; they were able to draw somewhat surprising strength from the last season of “Barry,” with writing, directing and acting nominations along with a best comedy nod. But down the ballot, HBO’s dramas looked especially strong, with “White Lotus” and “Succession” in particular repeating and building on their past dominance of the acting categories. Five actresses from “The White Lotus” made their way into the supporting actress in a drama field, along with “Succession’s” J. Smith-Cameron (and performers from “The Crown” and “Better Call Saul,” neither of which are on HBO); the supporting actor in a drama field is solely comprised of “White Lotus” and “Succession” performers. All three of the “Succession” actors run as lead  — Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, and Jeremy Strong — made it into the field, making that category fifty percent Roy. (Pedro Pascal from “The Last of Us” is among their competition.)

HBO is benefiting from a long-term trend towards consolidation at the Emmys — in a TV landscape with more to watch than ever before, it’s perhaps no surprise that voters consolidate around a few core favorites, casting votes for them over and over. (I’m open to the possibility that this, generally, boxes out worthy performers, but I’m not sure there’s a nominated “White Lotus” performer, say, I’d cut out. In fact, I’m a bit bummed Adam DiMarco didn’t make it in!) And it’s also the beneficiary of another trend it helped create: Ever since “Game of Thrones” banged the door down for genre TV at the Emmys, more and more of it’s been invited to the show. “House of the Dragon,” the literal follow-up to “Thrones,” and “The Last of Us” fit well into a landscape that “Game of Thrones” helped create. 

But good news is good news, and HBO had a lot of it on nomination morning. It’s worth noting that among the authors of this success, inder the leadership of HBO and Max chief Casey Bloys’ leadership, are processes that are neither glamorous nor cheap; “House of the Dragon,” for instance, famously was the result of a lengthy search process for just the right show to continue telling the story of Westeros, including dumping a pilot that had been shot. “The Last of Us” was a show of faith in a creator who’d previously had success on the network, even as executives didn’t know what to make of the source material. “Succession” was not an out-of-the-box hit, and “The White Lotus,” in its earliest going, was a nimble attempt to gin up a show that could be shot on a limited number of locations during early COVID.

HBO is not the first or only network to make shows at great effort or expense, and these examples shouldn’t be taken to suggest they’re alone in that regard. They are, however, both unique in the scale and consistency of their success and in the perceived possibility that their ability to act with autonomy might, down the road, be somewhat altered. Zaslav has made news for a number of moves that have changed the trajectory and composition of long-staid brands, from cutting the headcount at Turner Classic Movies to pulling various shows off of streaming. And even beyond these much-discussed acts, the shifting of HBO into one component part of a media empire run by the former Discovery head has at least the symbolic effect of shaving away some of its primacy. Say this much: It’s a volatile and dynamic situation.

But to this point, HBO’s presence within a content universe built around the streaming app now known as Max looks much as it ever did. This morning, it’s the star. And their haul at the Emmys looks a lot like it used to back in the days before “Warner Bros. Discovery” was even a glimmer. The best-case scenario is that this might encourage more, not less, investment — or at least stability for a cable network that’s had little of that in recent years and has still managed to pull off coup after coup. Being met with acclaim and success for following impulses towards creative risk ought to allow for more of the same. 

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