Primetime Emmys: Can broadcast compete against cable?

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(CNN) — With one of his first jokes at the 66th Primetime Emmy Awards, host Seth Meyers cut to the chase:

“MTV aired the Video Music Awards last night. That’s right, MTV still has an award for music videos even though they no longer show music videos,” he said. “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?”

There was loud laughter in the auditorium — knowing laughter, because that’s what the Emmys have resembled in recent years: an awards show on network TV celebrating cable TV.

During this year’s awards telecast, though, viewers could almost see the tug-of-war — as the networks pulled off some surprising wins and Netflix found itself shut out of the major categories.

In fact, Monday’s telecast felt at times like an elaborate commercial for network TV, interrupted ever so briefly by an actual commercial that Netflix paid to air during the first of the three hours. It was a reminder that the answer to the question “What’s the future of television?” is “all of the above.”

When it was all over, the cable channel AMC, home to “Breaking Bad,” had picked up five Emmy statues, but so had CBS, the broadest of the broadcast networks. One of CBS’s five was awarded to Julianna Margulies, star of “The Good Wife,” in the lead actress in a drama category.

On stage, she thanked “our writers who never cease to amaze me with 22 episodes a year” — a jab at cable series that tend to have much shorter seasons.

Another network series, ABC’s “Modern Family,” came away with three wins, including the outstanding comedy award for the fifth year in a row. Television critics expressed disappointment on Twitter — partly because there were newer, edgier nominees like Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” and HBO’s “Silicon Valley” that deserved the prize.

“Even for the Emmys, this is some hardcore repetition,” NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote on Twitter.

But ABC was understandably thrilled by all the recognition for the sitcom.

“Someone forgot to tell the voters that the networks weren’t supposed to win anything,” opined Slate’s Willa Paskin.

For viewers, of course, there’s hardly any network-cable tension at all. These days, TV fans barely distinguish between ABC and AMC and Amazon, and they don’t have to, thanks to newfangled set-top boxes and streaming video websites.

Case in point: On Monday, I watched an old episode of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” on Netflix, then the Emmys red carpet on the cable channel E!, and then the actual awards show on NBC.

Furthermore, all of the companies that own broadcast networks also own lucrative cable channels, and in many cases the same companies also license shows to streaming services like Netflix.

Still, there is palpable tension within the television industry: Some broadcast executives resent the fact that long stretches of the Emmys — which they take turns televising — amount to celebrations of cable. The executives also point out that there are big differences between the business models of broadcast and cable, and in many ways, that favors cable.

All of this raises a question that gets re-asked every year: Can a broadcast series like “Downton Abbey,” on PBS, really compete with “True Detective,” on HBO, or “Breaking Bad”?

On Monday, the answer was yes, with an asterisk. Indeed, Margulies’ best actress win — her second win in the category — was all the more notable because “The Good Wife” was not even nominated for best drama. Backstage after the telecast, Margulies said she felt very strongly that her award was “for the whole team,” for the whole show.

Other network wins included Allison Janney for her supporting actress role in the new CBS comedy “Mom” and Jim Parsons for his lead actor role in “The Big Bang Theory.” PBS’s “Sherlock” earned three statues, as well.

There was something of an underdog spirit to these wins — underscored by the joke Meyers made upon introducing Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central late-night star who will succeed David Letterman on CBS next year.

“He’s being demoted from cable to network TV,” Meyers quipped.

Later in the evening, Colbert won the variety series Emmy for his “Colbert Report.” Next year, his old cable and new network shows could compete with one another in the category.

But broadcast, cable, HBO, Netflix — viewers don’t care where the show comes from, as long as the show’s worth watching. And the lines between all the different versions of TV will continue to blur.

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