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HBO Is Back on Top, Perhaps for the Last Time

Another dominant Emmy nomination haul for cable's crown jewel might be as good as it ever gets in the David Zazlav era.
  • photos: Warner Bros. Discovery
    photos: Warner Bros. Discovery

    The morning of the 2023 Primetime Emmy nominations was a very good one for HBO. The channel raked in 123 total Emmy nominations for all its various shows, finding itself in the familiar position of being the nomination leader for all of TV. In the Outstanding Drama Series category, HBO boasted four of the eight nominees: Succession, The White Lotus, House of the Dragon, and The Last of Us. It was the first time since 1992 that a single network placed four shows in that category.

    HBO succeeding at the Emmy nominations is nothing new. This is the brand that brought cable television to the top of the TV mountain, and the Emmy nominations hauls over the years for the likes of The Larry Sanders Show, The Sopranos, Sex and the City, Band of Brothers, Game of Thrones, and Mare of Easttown, and countless more tell that story. But this year, the atmosphere of unease and uncertainty that pervades Hollywood — anxieties over the long-term viability of streaming TV and theatrical film distribution have been compounded by the ongoing actors' and writers' strike against the studios — hangs heaviest over HBO and its parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. Branding changes, show cancellations, and a seemingly constant stream of new, unpopular developments from CEO David Zaslav have put the brand most synonymous with quality television in danger of relinquishing that standing, just when they seem to have finally beaten back their most serious challenger.

    The Emmys narrative over the last three years has been HBO re-asserting itsr dominance over the flash challenge of Netflix, which in 2020 completed its five-year climb up the nomination leaderboard to set the Emmy record for nominations with 160. Since then, however, it's been a steady downward turn for Netflix. After a three-year slide, Netflix nabbed only 103 nominations in 2023. The usually reliable The Crown, which absolutely dominated the drama categories in 2021, was reduced to just six nominations this year, including a first-time snub in Lead Actress in a Drama. That show held on to a spot on the Outstanding Drama Series list, at least, which is more than could be said for Stranger Things, which was caught up in eligibility no-man's-land. And the Bridgerton spinoff Queen Charlotte only managed three nominations. Sure, Squid Game could return every bit the phenomenon it once was, but there's currently no combating the perception of Netflix as a platform in decline, just as HBO is riding high.

    But the streaming revolution that Netflix kicked off has destabilized the TV industry to the point where the major entertainment companies' TV and film profits have plummeted from $23.4 billion to $2.6 billion in the last 10 years. Netflix's Silicon Valley-bred dedication to disrupting the broadcast and cable TV model did exactly that, sending every major media company sprinting to create a streaming platform of their own, chasing an unprofitable business model that Wall Street investors are now souring on. This is why Zaslav spent the second half of 2022 canceling finished movies like Batgirl and TV shows with full seasons in the can like Minx, not to mention removing numerous HBO titles like Westworld not just from the HBO Max streaming platform but from the Warner library itself.

    This is the vortex that HBO finds itself in, led by a CEO who has not done much to inspire confidence in his stewardship of brands under the Warner Media umbrella. Seemingly cosmetic decisions like the new Max platform crediting "creators" rather than directors or writers, or corporate belt-tightening like the layoffs at Turner Classic Movies have felt like dark portents of a future at WBD that is at best indifferent and at worst openly hostile to the artists and achievements that have built brands like HBO and Warner Bros.

    The rebranding of HBO Max in 2023 as simply Max was emblematic of the reasons people have to worry about what's ahead for the HBO brand. The decision to combine HBO's streaming platform with that of Discovery+ was a huge red flag. The idea of marrying The Sopranos and Casablanca with the likes of 90 Day Fiancé, Guy Fieri, Naked and Afraid, and the Property Brothers, while certainly a cherry-picked set of comparisons, nevertheless underlines the asymmetry of these brands.

    Netflix once seemed like the threat that was going to take HBO down. Now, it's HBO's own management that’s made its position at the top of the TV heap precarious. The streaming wars continue, even as the platform that launched them has slipped. Apple TV+ posted their best-ever Emmy showing in 2023 with 54 nominations. Disney+ and Hulu — both owned by the Walt Disney Company, and which are being merged (along with ESPN) into the same app later this year — combined for 104 nominations. And, unless the studios see reason in negotiating with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, they're going to deprive themselves of a fall programming season. The already bruised relationship between HBO and the creatives who make their award-winning shows could be damaged even more. If the managerial missteps at WarnerMedia Discovery diminish a brand that has been synonymous with high-quality TV since the 1990s, the gulf between HBO and everyone else that’s often been illustrated on Emmy nomination morning could disappear someday too.

    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.

    TOPICS: HBO, Netflix, 2023 Primetime Emmy Awards, David Zaslav, TV Actors' Strike, TV Writers' Strike