If Emmy gold could be cashed in for big ratings, then AMC's Mad Men and NBC's 30 Rock would be the most popular shows in the land. That's clearly not the case — yet the competition for an Emmy nomination, let alone a win, has never been fiercer or more expensive.

Nominating ballots were due yesterday as Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters made their picks for this year's Emmy contenders. It's just the latest pit stop on the road to Emmy gold, as talent (and more likely, their reps) now take a breather and wait to see if their hard work is rewarded with nominations, which will be announced on July 19.

Welcome to Emmy season, which kicked into gear way back in February (when NBC came out of the pack first with screeners for TV Academy members) and will last until the final award is handed out Sept. 23 on this year's broadcast partner, ABC. And then it starts all over again. "For me it's a year-round process," says Richard Licata, NBC Entertainment's executive vice president of communications. "If you really want to maximize a show's potential, you're always looking at the episodes that could be entered and you're always positioning your shows."

Networks and studios used to be content with simply mailing screeners to members and buying a few ads in the trade papers to promote their key contenders. That was before the number of shows entering the competition exploded.

In 1992, just 29 series were submitted for outstanding drama series. That number jumped to 57 in 2002. This year, a whopping 87 shows are gunning for a nomination in the top drama race. Even the comedy race has jumped from 50 entrants in 1992 to 64 sitcoms this year.

Now "one has to scramble creatively and aggressively to break through the clutter," notes John Leverence, senior vice president in charge of awards at the TV Academy. "I think all of this is indicative of the importance of the Emmy to the industry, establishing with the audience a relationship between a program's quality and the generally recognized quality of the Emmy."

That means more elaborate and sustained campaigns in order to target the 15,000-plus Academy members. However, one insider says only about half the membership actively votes.

The average Emmy campaign for a series can cost from $150,000 to $500,000. That pales compared to the millions that film studios spend on Oscar campaigns, but the gap is narrowing. "It's really exploded this year," Licata says.

Hard copy mailers to TV Academy members can cost $150,000 alone when the cost of DVD duplication, packaging and postage are factored in. The Academy also charges $150 per episode per peer group (of which there are 28 in the organization, including peer groups for writers, actors, directors and set designers, among others). So if you decide to send 10 episodes to members in all 28 peer groups, that would cost $42,000 in fees alone.

The TV Academy has put more stringent rules in place for screeners after the elaborate packaging got out of hand (they like to be environmentally friendly). Leverence says, "there was a green revolt" after someone sent out a globe made of indestructible plastic a few years ago. But rules are made to be broken, as Food Network learned this year when it caused a stir over its mailer, which included a lunch box. (Because the box was reusable, the Academy allowed it.)

Meanwhile, among other big expenses, producers and stars are being asked to participate in more panel discussions (which frequently take place at the TV Academy's theater in North Hollywood, Calif., and can cost more than $20,000).

Even the general public in L.A. is being bombarded with campaigns, from billboards and local radio spots to hefty ad buys in the Los Angeles Times and even city buses wrapped with ads. Most of these modern campaigns are being seen by people who have nothing to do with the Emmys.

But execs chalk that spillover up to series marketing and branding — and in the case of many cable networks, these shows are currently airing originals, so the ads help promote tune-in anyway. "When you have a big billboard on Sunset Boulevard of White Collar's Matt Bomer, that's a situation where USA is not only pitching for Emmy votes but also trying to bring attention to the fact that they air an Emmy-quality show," Leverence reasons. Cable already has a leg up on the networks as those networks (particularly premium channels like HBO) frequently spend more than their broadcast counterparts. And cable also benefits from airing many of their marquee shows in the summer, right smack in the middle of Emmy voting.

Execs say they're resigned to spending lavishly partly because they're not sure what would happen if they didn't. "If you don't advertise, does it hurt you?" wonders FX media relations senior vice president John Solberg. "You can't take that chance, that risk of not doing these things." At Showtime, this year's campaign includes a website streaming entire seasons of series; a DVD mailer to Academy members; a second mailer devoted to House of Lies (while Fox21, the studio behind Homeland, sent a separate mailer for that show); a panel at the Academy theater for Homeland; bus ads and billboards; online advertising; ads in the Los Angeles Times; and plenty of interviews and roundtables for the Hollywood trade papers.

Nominations and wins can put a cable network on the map — witness ReelzChannel, which was virtually unknown before its nods and wins for The Kennedys last year. "It helped Showtime," notes Licata, who spent several years there before joining NBC last year.

Others are skeptical that the move into outdoor ads and other public venues will make a difference come voting time. "Some shows are naturals and are going to get nominated no matter what you do," says one insider. "And some shows will never get a nomination. It's a huge crapshoot."

Still, says Kim Reed, an awards consultant: "People are starting to spend a few more bucks now. With more programming, there's more need to be competitive."

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