An Emmy Win for The Handmaid's Tale Paints a Dystopian Future for Traditional TV

How long until prestige television completes its long exodus from the cable bundle?

The cast and crew of Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale accept the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series  (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale won the Emmy award for Best Drama Series on Sunday night, the first time that a streaming service has snagged the show’s top award.

In many ways, this is a surprising news peg (Hulu?!) for an unsurprising story (the rise of streaming television). Hulu is a distant third behind Netflix and Amazon in the streaming wars, which makes last night’s underdog achievement impressive. But it was only a matter of time before a streaming company took home an award for best series. Netflix has been nominated for top drama or comedy several times—for House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Master of None, and Amazon has earned several nods for Transparent.

Meanwhile, the growth of prestige television on streaming services is part of the long term decline of critical darlings on broadcast television (NBC, ABC, CBS, and Fox). The last broadcast production to win the Emmy for top drama was 24, on Fox, in 2006. While comedies like 30 Rock (NBC) and Modern Family (ABC) have thrived at the Emmy’s in the last decade, HBO's Veep has won the last three awards for best comedy series. Critically acclaimed shows aren’t the only thing in decline on broadcast television. Everything else is, too. Out of 78 prime-time broadcast series that aired in both 2016 and 2017, only one—ABC’s The Bachelor—increased its viewership among people under 50.

So, what exactly is the larger significance of Hulu’s win?

As a first-order effect, one should expect Hulu to spend more money on prestige dramas and other expensive shows. Hulu senior vice president Craig Erwich told New York Magazine that he wanted to use The Handmaid’s Tale—“the most-viewed launch of a show in [Hulu’s] history”—to build the network’s roster of dramas. “If you look at the history of entertainment, often there can be a show that defines a service, but it does not itself make the service,” he said. “Because you have to continue to follow up.”

Hulu’s redoubled attempts to pad their roster will create even more competition in the crowded market for prestige drama, adding to what is already a glut of cinematic television. A superabundance of expensive television shows is good news for streaming networks that are supported by subscriptions, since each new show offers another reason for unconvinced viewers to sign up for the service. But it’s bad news for networks that are supported by advertising, since more shows divided by a stable population means fewer viewers per show. Prestigious awards alone might not cause viewers to cut the cord. But if they contribute to a growing sense that most must-see television is on streaming services, it weakens the pay-TV product and encourages future cord-cutters.

There’s also a notable demographic split: Americans over 65, who broke for Trump by an 8 point margin, are watching more traditional television than ever. Americans under 30, who voted for Clinton by an 18-point margin, have reduced their traditional television viewing time by 50 percent since the Great Recession. And the divide showed at Sunday’s Emmy’s. The show wasn’t just a historic moment for these streaming services. It was also an extended roasting of President Trump, from Stephen Colbert’s monologue, to Sean Spicer’s appearance, to many, many presentations and thank-you speeches that skewered the president. In an age of hyper-polarization, Americans can’t even share television anymore.