At the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards, on the backs of wins for Succession and The White Lotus, HBO once again stood head and shoulders above its competition. The premium cabler beat back the threat of Netflix to take back the lead in total nominations, and, along with its streaming platform HBO Max, took home 38 total awards. HBO knows all about being the upstart at the Emmys; the rise of streamers over the last few years is a reflection of HBO's own journey.
HBO's rise to Emmy dominance obviously didn't start all at once. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, the big three networks — NBC, ABC, and CBS — traded victories in the major categories and jockeyed for position at the top of the leaderboard when it came to total nominations and wins. That leaderboard would come to be dominated by HBO, but everything has to start somewhere. What follows is a timeline of the landmark Emmy nominations and wins that follows HBO's rise from made-for-TV movies to the network behind some of the most acclaimed TV series of the 21st century.
First Nomination in an Acting Category: Danny Glover in Mandela
First Win in a Major Category: Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program
The 40th Primetime Emmy Awards, held in August of 1988, were a landmark moment in Emmy history, as they marked the first year that pay-cable channels HBO and Showtime received nominations in major categories. Comedy legend Jackie Mason took home the award for Writing in a Variety or Music Program for the HBO production of his Tony-winning one-man show The World According to Me!. That same year, Danny Glover was nominated for playing the title role on the TV movie Mandela, becoming the first of many actors who would be Emmy nominated for their HBO work. Glover lost the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special award to Jason Robards in NBC's Inherit the Wind.
First Made-for-TV Movie Nomination: Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story
Oscar winner Ben Kingsley played the title character, who, upon being liberated from a concentration camp at the end of World War II, provides information vital to prosecuting the Nazis at Nuremburg. Kingsley was nominated but lost the acting award to James Woods for the ABC movie My Name Is Bill W., but the film won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Miniseries or Special. And for the first time ever, HBO was nominated in what was then called "Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special" but would eventually become the award for best made-for-TV-movie. The film lost to a tie between CBS's Manhattan Project-themed Day One and NBC's Roe vs. Wade.
First Acting Win: Lynn Whitfield: The Josephine Baker Story
In HBO's biggest bout of Emmy success to date, the network took home five Emmy Awards for The Josephine Baker Story, including one for Lynn Whitfield as Outstanding Actress in a Miniseries or Special. The other wins were for directing, art direction, costume design and hairstyling.
First Outstanding TV Movie Win: Barbarians at the Gate and Stalin
HBO's very first victory in a best series or film category was actually a tie with itself, which feels like a precursor to the ways in which HBO would end up dominating the Emmys in the future. Barbarians at the Gate was a comedy-drama about corporate takeover starring James Garner, while Stalin was a drama Stalin starring Robert Duvall as Joseph Stalin. Their competition was two other HBO movies, Citizen Cohn and The Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom. This kicked off a period of sustained dominance in the Made for TV Movie category, with HBO winning 15 of the next 17 times, before movies were (briefly) combined with miniseries in 2011.
First Outstanding Comedy Series Nomination: The Larry Sanders Show
One of the shows that put HBO on the map was The Larry Sanders Show, which made a big Emmy splash in its first season. The show picked up eight nominations in the major categories: two for writing, five for performances (Garry Shandling in lead, Rip Torn and Jeffrey Tambor in supporting, Dana Carvey and Carol Burnett as guest stars), and a history-making nomination in Outstanding Comedy Series. The Larry Sanders Show ranked third in most major nominations that year, behind only Northern Exposure and Seinfeld, the latter of which beat Larry to the trophy.
The Larry Sanders Show Leads All Nominated Shows
First Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Win: Rip Torn, The Larry Sanders Show
For the first time ever, an HBO series outpaced all other shows on TV with the most major nominations. With 12 nominations, Larry bested ER (11 nominations) and helped HBO finish a strong second to NBC in most major nominations by network.
Aside from a Guest Actor in a Comedy win in 1993 for Dream On's David Clennon, HBO hadn't won an acting award outside of the miniseries or TV movie categories until 1996. After three years of getting bested by the likes of Seinfeld's Michael Richards and Frasier's David Hyde Pierce, Rip Torn won his first Emmy for playing show producer Artie.
First Outstanding Drama Series Nomination: The Sopranos
First Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Win: Edie Falco The Sopranos
The Sopranos was a breakthrough series for HBO in many ways, but especially in the way the show was so enthusiastically embraced by the Emmys. Six years after The Larry Sanders Show planted a flag for HBO among the comedy series, The Sopranos did the same in drama. The show's debut season earned 11 major nominations, leading all shows, and as Carmella Soprano, Edie Falco took home HBO's first trophy in the Lead Actress in a Drama category, her first of three wins in the category.
First Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Win: James Gandolfini, The Sopranos
While Edie Falco triumphed in 1999, her co-star James Gandolfini lost out to NYPD Blue's Dennis Franz, who picked up his fourth win that night. The next year, though, it was Gandolfini's turn to take the trophy for his titanic performance as Tony Soprano. In his acceptance speech, he shouted out the Emmy voters' apparent "affinity for slightly overweight bald men" in a nod to his and Franz's aesthetic similarities. Gandolfini would win twice more over the next three years.
HBO Leads All Networks in Total Nominations
After seeing its nomination totals creep closer and closer to the top of the heap, 2001 was the year where HBO finally took its place as the Emmy Awards' most favored network. Bolstered by not only its flagship series The Sopranos and Sex and the City but also the Mike Nichols-directed TV movie Wit, the World War II movie Conspiracy, and The Chris Rock Show, HBO racked up 44 major nominations, besting NBC by one.
First Outstanding Comedy Series Win: Sex and the City
At the front of the HBO Emmy stampede in 2001 was Sex and the City, the network's landmark comedy series that had premiered in 1998 and lost out on the two previous Comedy Series Emmys to Ally McBeal and Will & Grace, respectively. Season 3 turned out to be the charm for SATC, though please resist the urge to credit the arrival of Aidan Shaw with pushing the show over the top.
First Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Win: Joe Pantoliano, The Sopranos
For the first few years of The Sopranos's existence, the show was a major Emmy favorite but was still snakebitten in certain categories, mostly due to the huge popularity of The West Wing. But after three different West Wing performers took home the Supporting Actor in a Drama trophy from 2000-02, Joey Pants finally scored one for New Jersey. This was the Sopranos season where Pantoliano's Ralph Cifaretto met his incredibly violent end at Tony's hands, so no one can say this award wasn't hard won.
First Outstanding Drama Series Win: The Sopranos
Speaking of being snakebitten by The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin's political drama had a chokehold on the category for its first four seasons, and three of those victories came at The Sopranos's expense. But finally in 2004, The Sopranos was able to make HBO history and take home the network's first Outstanding Drama Series trophy. The Sopranos would win once more for its farewell season in 2007, and then HBO wouldn't see the podium for Drama Series again until Game of Thrones ascended in 2015.
First Lead Actress in a Comedy Win: Sarah Jessica Parker, Sex and the City
First Supporting Actress in a Comedy Win: Cynthia Nixon, Sex and the City
Similar to the extended wait The Sopranos had to endure to win its first Drama Series Emmy, Sarah Jessica Parker was repeatedly cast as the bridesmaid in the Lead Actress in a Comedy race. She lost five years in a row to the likes of Helen Hunt, Patricia Heaton, Jennifer Aniston, and Debra Messing before she finally came out on top for Sex and the City's farewell season. Her victory was paired with that of her co-star Cynthia Nixon, who won at last for her performance as Miranda Hobbes, scoring HBO's first Supporting Actress in a Comedy victory in the process. We all try to forget that Donald Trump was one of the presenters for her award.
First Supporting Actress in a Drama Win: Drea de Matteo The Sopranos
Completing HBO's commanding Emmy performance in 2004 was Drea de Matteo, who won the first Emmy she was ever nominated for, for the episode where her character, Adriana La Cerva, met her untimely end. It was HBO's first win in the category after six previous nominations for the likes of The Sopranos's Nancy Marchand and Aida Turturro and Six Feet Under's Lauren Graham and Rachel Griffiths.
First Lead Actor in a Comedy Win: Ricky Gervais, Extras
After Garry Shandling went winless for the entire run of The Larry Sanders Show (and Larry David has thus far done the same for Curb Your Enthusiasm), it came as quite a surprise when HBO's first victory in this category came for the British import Extras. Despite Gervais's history of acclaim for The Office, he was decidedly the underdog in 2007, up against heavy hitters like Tony Shalhoub for Monk, Alec Baldwin for the first season of 30 Rock, and the actor most people expected to win, Steve Carell for The Office.
HBO Sweeps the Drama and Comedy Series Wins
HBO had seen a ton of Emmy success in the aughts with The Sopranos and Sex and the City, but oddly never both in the same year. It took until 2015 and the concurrent triumphs of Game of Thrones in Outstanding Drama and Veep in Outstanding Comedy for the stars to align for HBO in just this way. The last time a network pulled off this double was NBC in 2002, with victories for The West Wing and Friends. The 2015 HBO sweep capped off two and a half decades of increasing Emmy success, with this moment a symbol of the kind of dominance that HBO still holds today, despite the challenges of streamers and the uncertainty of what's to come.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.