Emmy balloting starts Monday and continues through June 20, and you would have to be living under a rock — or somewhere other than Los Angeles or New York — not to be aware that we are in the midst of perhaps the most massive, widespread Emmy campaigning ever. Is it me or has this Emmy season even seemed to eclipse the Oscars in terms of the campaign for the golden statuette, even though there is no evidence that winning an Emmy has anywhere near the financial or prestige value of an Oscar.
There are billboards , bus posters, social media, Q&As, online and print ads galore and it doesn’t stop there. On Friday night, FX is throwing a New Orleans-style feast and concert from Stevie Nicks to accompany an episode screening and Q&A of their miniseries hopeful American Horror Story: Coven. It’s just one of many such events Television Academy members have been invited to this season. And this kind of thing just seems to be proliferating year after year. Perhaps it helps that the TV Academy itself plays ball in this game. The group’s official Emmy Magazine, which goes to all 16,000-plus eligible voters, is chock full of ads both inside and outside. Just to get to the actual magazine itself you have to rip off a Good Wife snipe, get past a glossy four-sided fake cover for Big Bang Theory and other Warner Bros shows, and dispense with an elaborate insert and DVD promoting CBS reality shows. Once you hit the “real” cover which features Fox’s Sleepy Hollow, it actually opens immediately into a massive HBO Emmy campaign ad for True Detective followed by nine more pages of ads before even hitting the table of contents. (Oh, and did we mention Sleepy Hollow itself had a big screening event at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Monday?)
Of course the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences does none of that, but doesn’t prevent campaigning to its members during Oscar season. But, while being even-handed and playing no favorites, the TV Academy does realize some income from all those ads and even hired a new head of ad sales this year, Hollywood trade veteran Rose Einstein (it should be noted Deadline is also chock full of Emmy ads). The studios and production companies all seem to have Emmy fever. Just witness the usual pile of elaborately packaged shows that arrive at every member’s doorstep. It wasn’t always this way. Although campaigns waged for Oscars have always seemed to be intense and elaborate, using the same methods to win an Emmy nomination is relatively new by comparison. To learn the evolution of it all I turned to a man who has been called “the wizard behind the Emmy curtain” and the guy who pulls “the campaign levers.” Richard Licata has been NBC Entertainment’s EVP Communications since 2011 but previously worked at Showtime, Fox Broadcasting, HBO and Rogers & Cowan. At each of those places he developed a knack, and a love for, the art of Emmy campaigning and as it has increased year to year he’s usually there with some new innovation to move it forward. It started for him when he was at HBO in 1991 and launched a nascent Emmy campaign for the TV movie The Josephine Baker Story resulting in numerous nominations and a Lead Actress statuette for star Lynn Whitfield. Licata doesn’t believe that surprise win was by accident. That year he even convinced a local video store chain to stock cassettes of the movie and took out trade ads directing Academy voters to the stores where they could check them out for free. It was an instant success.
“In 1991 The Josephine Baker Story triggered my interest in doing what the movie people had done for decades,” he said. “Why couldn’t television also put their so-called ‘best of the year’ in the center ring so that people would either revisit it or acknowledge it with Emmys. That’s when it started.” He added: “I think people realized you could speak to the TV Academy voters in a lot of various ways and get them to focus on the programming. It is really kind of a wonderful golden age of television now where there is so much good dramatic and comedic television that it’s worth trying to persuade voters to look at them. I have never seen so many billboards for Emmy consideration in my whole career as there are this year.” He added that wasn’t really the practice at the time he decided to do a couple of Dexter Emmy consideration billboards in 2011 while still at Showtime. Showtime also pioneered the OnLine screening room for full episodes. After they did that, the TV Academy followed with its own site offering the same service for members.
Among other innovations Licata tried was going early. Showtime had a series called Huff in 2005 which drew very low ratings when it debuted in November. In January, eight months before Emmy night, he packaged the entire series and sent it to the Academy membership. It became the first full-season DVD sent out and went on to earn a shocking seven Emmy nominations (and won two). Coincidence? Probably not. As Licata says, why wait until May when there’s a glut of these things and no one has the time to watch them all? When he was at Rogers & Cowan he opened a division dedicated to Emmy campaigns. Among the first clients was FX and The Shield. They send out a DVD box with a light that lit up when you opened it. Star Michael Chiklis was the surprise winner that year for Lead Actor in a Drama Series. For the 2002 sci-fi miniseries Taken, he sent an elaborate globe containing the DVDs. It won the Best Miniseries Emmy. “It was an ecological disaster but it did the trick,” Licata laughs.
At NBC he says they were already doing innovative work when he arrived three years ago but since have been adding new wrinkles including branding buses, digital billboards, and social media including Facebook and Google/Gmail ads. They also put episodes for consideration on American Airline flights between New York and LA and even clips in New York taxi cabs. NBCUniversal’s 21-page spread in the new Emmy Magazine begins with a sealed envelope containing a message to voters pushing the new NNBU Screen It app for iPads to watch full episodes and instructions on where to find your password. Licata also says that he can tell the TV Academy membership is getting younger just by the response to their screening room site. “The usage is extraordinary. Sometimes we look at the numbers and wonder if they made a mistake. Times have changed dramatically and people watch things online and their handheld devices and it has really helped in spreading the (Emmy) word,” he said.
Licata also feels it is important to be even handed in dealing with Emmy campaigns. That’s why he has two simultaneous campaigns going for The Tonight Show. There’s one for the old one “With Jay Leno.” And one for the new one “Starring Jimmy Fallon.” He hopes they both pan out. “It’s even-steven. It’s equal time. We are being aggressive with Jay to pay tribute to his 20 years on this network, and his last year was terrific. It’s kind of like an embarrassment of riches so we hope both of them come in,” he said. Leno may be an exception for sentimental reasons, but programs currently on the air almost always take precedence. In other words don’t look for NBC or any other player in the Emmy game to spend a lot of money on cancelled shows.
But again, is an Emmy really worth all this time, money and effort?
“My battle cry has always been that it’s great to win the gold, but I have always treated this as a really terrific branding opportunity for a network,” Licata says. “You get your product out there, not only the show but you showcase your talent and show them you care about them. I think Emmys are important in a very crowded television landscape. Does it bring in more viewers? I am not certain that it has the impact an Oscar has on a gross, but I definitely think it is one of the tools that helps build a show.” So don’t expect campaigning for Emmys to stop anytime soon.