‘Mad Men’ & ‘Modern Family’ Among Winners At First Critics’ Choice TV Awards

“Welcome to the pre-Emmy nominations campaign lunch,” one cable network exec deadpanned as I walked into the first (and organizers hope annual) Critics’ Choice Television Awards on Monday afternoon at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The event, created by the Broadcast Critics Association to complement the now 17-year-old Critics Choice Movie Awards and plant its flag officially in Emmy season, will be aired Wednesday on ReelzChannel, a rather obscure network that bills itself as “TV about Movies” but in this case will be “TV about TV.” Timed to occur during the Emmy nomination voting period (ballots aren’t due until this Friday), these awards, which drew many nominees, showrunners and execs and a big media turnout for red-carpet interviews, are another cog in the promotional wheel that has turned Emmy season into an advertising bonanza for many media outlets (yes, ads run on Deadline, too), and one that seems to be rivaling Oscar season for its pure visceral assault on potential voters. Actually, as a longtime member of the TV Academy, I would say the attention — not to mention cold hard cash — being lavished on trying to land nominations is more elaborate and intense than it has ever been. And maybe just a bit of overkill.

There are electronic billboards around L.A. soliciting votes (Steve Carell in The Office, anyone?) not to mention bus-shelter posters, Q&As everywhere (I have moderated my share), a months-long advertising blitz in trade papers and the Los Angeles Times (which recently had a full-on front-page ad wrap with their newspaper logo so that when readers opened their paper, they didn’t see the usual headlines but rather an Emmy bid for the stars of Men Of A Certain Age) and so much more.

Then there are all the lavish DVD boxes sent to the over-15,000-strong membership. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put a stop to this kind of blatant pandering to voters by enacting specific guidelines strictly outlawing promotional opportunities sent with screeners of award hopefuls. The TV Academy has not done this (although they should), which is why some days at Emmy time the mail brings loads of fun stuff for voters to unwrap. HBO, which usuually dominates Emmy noms, sent its traditional boxes packed with series, specials, movies and docs, but other outlets feeling the need to be noticed came up with attention-getting devices like the pop-up card from How I Met Your Mother; the monopoly-style board game for The Big Bang Theory; the children’s book-style layout for Fox’s Raising Hope; a lenticular showing two sides of RuPaul for his reality show on Logo; numerous elaborate glossy DVD-laden brochures and/or foldout packages for the likes of Glee, Modern Family, Hot In Cleveland, Community, The Good Wife, Friday Night Lights (including the final 13 episodes of the series); and the shows of Starz, FX, Showtime, TNT, WE, NBC Universal, History Channel, Discovery and others. AMC had one of the most sophisticated mailings and included the entire seasons of Mad Men and The Walking Dead as well as episodes from their other series.

The most garish bid for attention was an ill-conceived item from Warner Bros Television, which sent a big red box (inside another big box) that was adorned with its series’ names and contained seven very slick 4-foot long (by a little less than 2 feet wide) vertical banners with individual series DVDs awkwardly stuffed into the bottom part of each one (Two and a Half Men was MIA in this package, though).

After sifting through all this stuff, at least Fox gave voters a laugh with their annual solicitation for the animated perennial loser Family Guy, an unfolding DVD package that featured such sayings as “It’s been this way for eight years, and it’s starting to hurt morale,” then, “We paid for a Golden Globe and didn’t get it, so we’re owed an award,” then, “Here’s a free DVD to give to your nephew,” and finally, “This screener has one frame of porn. Find the porn.”

In addition to all this, the TV Academy hosts its own For Your Consideration website (which studios can opt into), sending out tons of separate emails to members informing them of various show-watching opportunities. For some reason these usually all come in at midnight on any given day, the last being on June 4, when I received 27 emails in succession cluttering up my BlackBerry (in this case mostly offering USA Network series).

With all this money being spent by networks and studios to attract the eyeballs of voters, you might get the impression that an Emmy is actually worth as much as an Oscar. But certainly Emmys don’t have the kind of cachet or potential financial advantage winning or being nominated for an Oscar does. It’s a nice pat on the back from your industry colleagues, and it is still considered the major TV award to have because it comes from peers, but is it worth all the attention and money this quest for the gold indicates?

Like just about every other showbiz award, a prime reason for this voter grab is ego-driven. The studios and networks who produce the shows want to demonstrate their love for their cash cows, the creators and stars of their product. There are also bragging rights. Emmy dominance helped put HBO on the map, and they’ve done the same thing for AMC, which has cleaned up in drama categories in recent seasons with Mad Men (the big winner with three Critics’ Choice awards today), Breaking Bad and Broken Trail and is hoping its Emmy campaign will boost new series The Walking Dead and The Killing, which wrapped up a 13-episode arc Sunday night right as Emmy voting hit a crescendo.

An HBO exec told me earlier today that they treat all their shows and contenders absolutely equally, doing what “we always do,” but they think there does seem to be an increase this season and that it will probably be even bigger next year.

I also caught up with FX boss John Landgraf at today’s ceremony and asked what he thought about the apparent increase in Emmy campaigning. FX is gaining traction with Justified, for which supporting actress Margo Martindale won an award today. He points out that the quality level on TV — whether it be premium, basic cable or network — is increasing, and thus the competition is so fierce now, particularly with the emergence of AMC, USA, TNT and his own FX as newer major players in Emmy season. “It’s so hard to get attention and break through with all this competition that there’s a good reason to try and be noticed,” he said, adding all the attention is good for Emmy’s prestige.

Whether any of this makes a difference in ratings for these shows or even the Emmy telecast itself doesn’t seem to matter. After the grueling six-month movie awards season, Hollywood now finds itself in the midst of another for TV, and it looks like Emmy is giving Oscar a run for his money.