The era of Internet television is officially here.
Netflix's "House of Cards" garnered nine Emmy nominations Thursday, becoming the first show delivered exclusively online to be nominated in the major categories including drama series, lead actor and lead actress.
The nominations gave instant credibility to Netflix, which scored an additional five nominations for the comedy "Arrested Development" and the horror series "Hemlock Grove," while underscoring the declining influence of the major broadcast networks.
For the second year in a row, the legacy networks failed to land a single nomination in the drama series category. The sole entry from broadcast is the period piece "Downton Abbey," which PBS imports from Britain's ITV.
The strong showing by Netflix will undoubtedly prompt others to get in the game, said Brad Adgate, an analyst for ad firm Horizon Media in New York.
"We will see a burst in original series online," Adgate predicted, noting that Hulu, the digital TV service jointly owned by Walt Disney Co., Comcast Corp. and News Corp., has earmarked $750 million for new programming. "Getting original and exclusive content will help separate the companies."
A clubby world that still pays heed to federal communications regulations written nearly 80 years ago, the legacy networks were forced to adjust in the late 1990s to attention-grabbing HBO series such as the Emmy favorite "The Sopranos." More recently, AMC's "The Walking Dead," "Mad Men" and other hits on basic cable have drained more viewers from broadcast.
Now, Emmy's embrace of "House of Cards" augurs a coming tide of original online content — a genre that until earlier this year was often derided as synonymous with "webisodes" and cheap, short videos a la YouTube gag-meisters Fred Figglehorn and Ryan Higa. (Organizers allowed online producers to submit their work in Emmy categories starting in 2007.)
"Television is what's on the screen — it's not how it gets there," Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos said in a post-nomination interview.
The Los Gatos company is planning what Sarandos dubbed an "aggressive" extension of its programming slate; the comedy "Orange Is the New Black" — overseen by the former executive producer of Showtime's "Weeds" — opened last week to strong reviews. Amazon in May started production on five new series, including a political comedy with former "Roseanne" star John Goodman.
All this is already changing what viewers see. In "House of Cards," for example, producers ditched the cliffhangers that are a cliché of prime-time dramas — because they figured that people who were interested in the show would binge-watch anyway, so there was no need of trying to coax them back with a contrived lure.
Netflix, which has 36 million subscribers, has sought to redefine itself as not merely a distributor of other studios' content but as a programmer in its own right.
The company has invested heavily in original series, gambling that such programming would elevate the network's standing in the same way that "Mad Men" did for AMC and "The Sopranos" did for HBO. Its $100-million, two-year bet on the political thriller "House of Cards" delivered a full-house of nominations for the political thriller, including drama series and lead actor and actress nods for Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright
Some experts foretell a continuing slide toward irrelevance by traditional networks unless they update their thinking.
"To stem the tide, broadcasters are going to have to do something they have been hesitant to do in many years: Invest financially in content that goes beyond the current copycat world of goofy reality shows, smart-mouthed sitcoms and bloody crime dramas," said Jeffrey McCall, a media professor at DePauw University. "Video consumers are leaving the big networks to find interesting shows on cable and now through streaming."
Of course, Netflix is not yet the beast that ate Hollywood. Skeptics have faulted the company — which hopes its on-demand service will eventually make Nielsen TV ratings obsolete — for refusing to cough up viewership data. "If People Really Love Netflix Originals, Why Won't It Tell Us How Many Watch Them?" Forbes.com asked in a tough-minded blog post this week.
No matter what those figures might be, it's highly unlikely they would match, say, the 20 million who show up each week to watch CBS' "NCIS," last season's No. 1 TV show.