If the Emmy Awards on Sunday night did anything, they clearly cemented HBO’s dominant position in the industry when it comes to creating powerful TV content: The network took home 43 statuettes for shows like Game of Thrones, which set a record for the most Emmys ever awarded in one year, with 12. And Netflix continued its string of recnt successes with awards for Orange Is the New Black.
At the same time, however, both of these industry players should be paying close attention to the performance of a newcomer on the field — namely, Amazon (AMZN), which won for its series Transparent. As the TV landscape continues to shift and buckle, it creates opportunities for new entrants, and Amazon has shown that it could be a powerful contender.
Netflix (NFLX) has probably already taken note of the online retailer as potential competition, since Amazon took home five Emmy awards and Netflix only got four. And if you look at the results on an award-per-nomination basis, Amazon did even better: The company got 12 nominations and won five of them, while Netflix got 34 nominations and only won four. Last year, Amazon didn’t get any nominations at all.
You could argue that Netflix has already established itself as a player in the TV business, and so it has less to prove — last year, it got 31 nominations and won seven of them. The TV industry is also notoriously hit-driven, and so the fact that Amazon got a good reception for its Transparent series doesn’t necessarily mean it’s suddenly going to become a Netflix or HBO killer.
That said, however, the conventional wisdom just a couple of years ago was that Amazon didn’t stand a chance against creative powerhouses like HBO. Critics dismissed its line-up of new TV series pitches as weak, and sceptics argued that it wouldn’t be able to compete no matter how many millions founder Jeff Bezos threw at the industry.
What’s interesting is that many of the same things were said about Netflix when it first started producing original content like House of Cards and even Orange Is the New Black. And yet, those shows and others have found a huge audience — primarily among younger TV watchers who have given up on cable and are looking for something else that interests them. That creates a huge opportunity for new providers.
It’s also worth noting that Amazon’s success with Transparent didn’t come about solely because it’s a good TV show. The series has won acclaim because it takes a stand on an important social issue, namely the way that society treats transgender individuals. Studies show that millennial audiences in particular are attracted by programming that engages them on social issues.
And much like Netflix, Amazon approaches TV programming from a very different perspective than some traditional TV networks. For CBS or ABC or NBC, it might be enough to have a second or third-rate performer that helps support their Thursday-evening lineup, etc. But all Amazon cares about is hits, as studio head Roy Price described it earlier this year:
“We’re not really in the programming business. That show that would get you from 8:30 to 9 — a goodish show. That has no value to us if it’s not going to be (someone’s) favorite show. We are not in the solid outcome business.”
Amazon has a number of other potentially high-profile projects in the works, including the popular Top Gear show it rescued after the BBC cut the show off, and a deal with film-maker Woody Allen. There’s also a series based on the popular 1990s sci-fi movie Galaxy Quest, and a drama called Hand of God. Last year, the company said it was committed to spending at least $100 million on new programming.
It’s possible that Amazon’s success with Transparent was a fluke, but betting against Jeff Bezos has been a mistake for lots of other industries, so it would probably be wise for HBO and others to pay attention to the interloper in their midst.
You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.