Amazon Prime Video, meanwhile, couldn’t close the gap with the top two but made the streaming derby a lot more interesting by winning a company-record seven trophies Sunday night at the Microsoft Theater. Fleabag‘s win for Outstanding Comedy Series gave Amazon its second straight victory in that top-shelf category (after The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and an overall tally of 15.
HBO came into this month’s Emmy ceremonies with a record 137 nominations, powered by 32 alone for Game of Thrones, which punctuated its farewell season with an Outstanding Drama Series triumph. Netflix had 117 total nominations. By the end of last Sunday’s second Creative Arts Emmys show, HBO led Netflix by a count of 25-23.
Last year, the companies tied with 23 wins across the three Emmy ceremonies, most of all companies in the field. In the main telecast in 2018, Netflix prevailed over HBO, seven wins to six.
Netflix, as its spending and overall streaming machine have ramped up in recent years, has been steadily putting more Emmy wins on the board. In 2016, it finished in third place and then rose to second in 2017.
Streaming in general has been making its presence felt at the Emmys, with Hulu and Amazon notching major wins for A Handmaid’s Tale and Mrs. Maisel, respectively. As HBO and Netflix duked it out, the streaming sector also was poised for significant change, with Apple and Disney launching major new subscription services in November. HBO Max will be launched by WarnerMedia in the spring and NBCUniversal will roll out Peacock in April.
The scoreboard tonight also showed the widening gap between premium cable and streaming and basic cable and broadcast. In all, there were four wins for basic cable (three scripted and one unscripted) and a lone win for broadcast, for NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
While the competition is likely to be spread across more contenders in the years to come, HBO and Netflix have long been closely linked as standard-bearers for quality. Thomas Lennon, the comedian/actor who delivered voiceovers and some brief on-camera bits during the Fox telecast, set the stage for the night heading into the first commercial break. He deadpanned that the show could be described as “$14.99-a-month-HBO battles $12.99-a-month Netflix.”
The two combatants have eyed each other for years. Netflix content chief Ted Sarandos famously summed up the streaming giant’s game plan when it was starting to focus more on Internet delivery than red envelopes as to “become HBO before HBO can become us.” Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of Netflix, also jabbed during a 2014 earnings call with Wall Street analysts, saying that former HBO chief Richard Plepler’s password for bundled streaming service HBO Go was “Netflixbitch.”
The two companies have not been at the same level in terms of spending in recent years. Netflix’s investment in original programming has reached double-digit billions, several times what HBO has spent. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and WarnerMedia entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt have each sought to spin their disadvantage in terms of dollars to an upper hand in terms of coherence and curation. Stephenson a year ago used a comparison that raised eyebrows, especially inside HBO, likening Netflix to Wal-mart and HBO to Tiffany. Greenblatt told NBC News that Netflix “doesn’t have a brand. It’s just a place you go to get anything — it’s like Encyclopedia Britannica.”
Since last year’s Primetime Emmys, though, HBO has run a corporate gauntlet, as Plepler left after nearly 30 years at the network and a number of senior executives also exited amid widespread restructuring. WarnerMedia dismantled the walls that separated business units for decades, merging distribution, marketing and other functions at HBO with those of the former Turner networks. HBO Max, meanwhile, has grabbed streaming rights to shows like Friends and The Big Bang Theory, which will sit alongside a slate of “Max originals” on the new service.
WarnerMedia and AT&T are hosting an investor day in Burbank on October 29, promising to offer some long-sought clarity about their streaming strategy, including key aspects such as pricing. While Apple and Disney have staked out the low end of the market, at $5 and $7 a month, respectively, HBO Max is likely going to be at least $15 a month. That will put it at the high end of subscription streaming (most Netflix subscribers pay $13), but if HBO keeps winning the Emmy race, it will be that much easier to persuade consumers of the return on their investment.