With its 43 statuettes, Time Warner's (TWX) HBO topped all winners at the annual Emmys Sunday night, but it was one award given to Amazon (AMZN) - Get Report that signaled Internet-based programming is reshaping how television shows are distributed and which companies are most likely to lead in television's transformation.
The award was the Emmy given to Jeffrey Tambor for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series for Amazon's gender-bending show Transparent. The symbolism in Tambor's win in a lead role is everywhere, as he is better-known for decades of character work. There's also the matter of Tambor playing a series lead as a man transitioning to a woman.
And with Tambor's win being the first major acting Emmy for an Internet TV show, the award shows that streaming networks led by Amazon and Netflix (NFLX) - Get Report are making a presence in the industry that will be felt for years to come. And although HBO grew to prominence as a premium cable-TV channel, the introduction of HBO NOW demonstrates that Time Warner keenly understands that the future is in streaming.
The Emmy for Transparent also gives validation to Amazon's practice of putting its series pilots online and letting viewer opinions play a role in what shows get picked up for full seasons, typically consisting of 10 episodes.
"The consumer vote is smart, as it drives awareness and builds an audience," says Michael Pachter, media analyst of Wedbush Securities. "[It's] a viable alternative to Netflix."
Altogether, Amazon's Transparent won five Emmys: in addition to Tambor's award, show creator Jill Solloway won for Outstanding Directing in a comedy series for the episode titled Best New Girl, the series also won three creative Emmy awards.
Amazon's Transparent wins are likely to develop more attention for the some of the company's current and upcoming Prime Video series. Amazon recently released the first season of Hand of God, a drama about a morally-circumspect judge played by Ron Perlman, recently seen in the FX series Sons of Anarchy. Anticipation is also high over the upcoming full season of The Man in the High Castle, a drama based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name set in the early 1960s in a United States that lost World War II.
The emphasis that Amazon and its main rival, Netflix put on original programming is no doubt central to the Internet TV providers' efforts to stand out from competitors. But it remains difficult to judge how much time the companies' viewers spend watching their programs.
Netflix said it had 65 million members worldwide, and more than 42 million in the U.S. at the end of its second quarter, but the company is tight-lipped on actual time spent watching specific shows. Amazon, which offers Prime Video to its Prime subscription members, has never released how many subscribers it has.
"Amazon is a viable alternative to Netflix," Pachter said, who estimates that while the companies' original series get the awards and attention. "The hours spent watching each network's originals is only a very small fraction of the total hours spend on each network."
The rise of so-called prestige TV programming like that advanced by HBO, and the demand for such shows can be seen in the number of Emmy nominations scored by Amazon on its rivals. Amazon, which three years ago had no original programs of its own, claimed 12 nominations this year. Netflix shows counted 34 Emmy nods, and took home four awards this year.
But even with the Internet TV networks gaining more presence with viewers and Emmy voters, they still trail HBO in terms of awards and public awareness. HBO's Game of Thrones remains one of the top water-cooler discussion shows on TV, and led all Emmy winners Sunday with 12 awards. The HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge came in second place with 8 wins. Such standing suggests that HBO is still going to keep playing its game regardless of whatever threats Amazon, Netflix, or others may present.
"They [HBO] are well ahead, better at programming, and own all of their original shows," Pachter said. "HBO won't do anything different."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.