Back in 1992, Richard Licata, now executive vice president of communications for NBC, was at HBO, and he was looking for a way to make the premium cable channel an Emmy contender. "Not all of the voters at that time in Los Angeles had HBO," he recalls. "We decided to get aggressive about our programming in a broadcast universe. The landscape was wide open."
Licata called a local video store chain and asked if he could leave a few VHS cassettes of HBO programs for members of the Television Academy to check out. In exchange, he'd give the store free publicity by promoting the offering in local and trade newspaper ads. "After two weeks they called me and said, 'We need more tapes because they're all gone.' I knew I was on to something."
Now, 22 years later, the Emmy race is big business and so competitive that stars and producers spend a chunk of April, May and June schmoozing at publicity events, participating in panel discussions attended by voters and being interviewed in roundtables conducted for various publications' special Emmy issues. (Some of those Q&A sessions are even starting to pop up on TV, like A&E's The Hollywood Reporter Roundtables.) And that's just for a shot at a nomination, let alone a win.
Fueling the frenzy is the continued rise in shows competing for one of just six slots in the Outstanding Comedy and Drama Series categories. This year, 86 comedy series and 108 drama series were submitted in various categories. Just two years ago, 64 comedies and 87 dramas were entered.
"It seems like the intensity has ramped up considerably," says Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation executive producer Mike Schur. "The cable and premium cable campaigns are more numerous and more thorough now than ever, which then causes the [broadcast] networks to fight back. It's a Cold War-style arms race, with just slightly lower stakes."
The average Emmy campaign for a major show costs between $150,000 and $500,000; insiders put HBO at the high end, spending as much as $2 million all together on its multiple contenders. With more outlets getting into the original series business, that means even more money being pumped into the Emmy economy. Amazon's big push for its comedy Alpha House has been hard to miss, and that ubiquity comes with a hefty price tag — one Emmy pundit prices it at $750,000 or more: "They're everywhere, but now I want to see this show."
Much of a show's Emmy campaign money is spent on ads that run on billboards and buses throughout Los Angeles, as well as in trade publications; the rest on events, the tally of which includes talent costs, catering and the TV Academy's fee to use its mailing list or hold the event at its headquarters. "The Academy is aggressive about making money from this," says an exec involved in campaigning. The networks and studios have found a way to cut costs by directing voters to online screeners, rather than mailing out DVDs. Those DVDs are not only expensive to duplicate and mail, but the Academy charges a fee per episode. According to that exec, 60-75 percent of screeners are online now. "We save money," he says.
Schur says he was resistant to the campaign trail at first: "Actively campaigning for artistic awards, the very nature of which is problematic, tangled and odd, seemed risky and fraught," he says. But Schur admits the practice can be fun, especially when it means spending time with other showrunners who are also gunning for an Emmy. "I've met a lot of people I admire and had never gotten to meet just by showing up at a panel," he says.
The campaigns often do double duty, as they also market the shows to viewers. Many shows are entering a new season while simultaneously Emmy campaigning for the previous season. "It's not just for the gold," Licata says. "It's a really effective branding opportunity for a network and for the shows."
John Leverence, senior vice president in charge of awards at the TV Academy, believes that the intersection of the Emmy race with May sweeps and summer season programming has helped fuel the impression that For Your Consideration campaigning has exploded. "The budgets for the former have intersected with the budgets for the latter, creating more awareness and saturation around Emmy voting time," he says.
But does heavy campaigning really make a difference, or would most nominees make the ballot anyway? "It remains a big question to me," Licata says. "I want to do an analysis of what the nominations are and how it correlates to the advertising and promotion on the shows."
It sure seems to work for HBO, which has led the pack in nods for the past 13 years — and is gunning to extend that streak when this year's nominations are announced on July 10.
Schur says the system is "bonkers," given the hundreds of shows in contention. "The idea that the Emmy vetting process is anything close to thorough is silly," he says. "There simply isn't time for people to watch what they need to watch. Nor do the networks have the time and money to hype every deserving writer, actor and director. I have no solution here, except that maybe instead of the Emmys everyone in TV just gathers in the Staples Center and eats donuts and chat."