Launching an Emmy campaign requires addition and subtraction

An Emmy win can enhance a show, studio, network and a star but, like anything else, comes at a high price.

With the Emmy Awards campaign in full swing, that sound you hear in the distance is the cha-ching of cash registers at video production facilities, design companies, mailing houses and trade publications as the studios and nets gear up to try to make an impression on the approximately 11,800 members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences who comprise the eligible voting body for TV’s highest honor.

Imagine for a moment that you’re the producer (or studio owner) of an acclaimed drama series featuring a top-notch ensemble led by a powerful lead actor and actress. Luckily for this hypothetical producer, “The Sopranos” is not eligible for Emmy consideration this year, so one of the five best drama series, actor and actress nomination slots annually reserved for HBO’s crown jewel and stars James Gandolfini and Edie Falco are available.

On the flipside, the competition for these coveted nominations remains incredibly fierce, with no fewer than 10 veteran series, and a half-dozen newcomers from both broadcast and cable webs all laying claims to noms.

What to do? Launch an Emmy campaign, of course, but be sure to take out a bank loan first.

The good news: unlike the unwieldy and mysterious world of Oscar campaigning — where studios keep their own lists of movie Acad voters and competition is fierce to have the most up-to-date Rolodex — the outreach to Emmy voters is much more straightforward for TV folks. To reach ATAS’ roughly 11,800 members directly, producers send VHS tapes or DVDs to some or all of the Academy’s more than two dozen peer groups through a central ATAS-endorsed mailing house, so everyone is operating on a level playing field when it comes to accessing voters.

The bad news: Did we mention the cost?

In order to mail to Academy members, producers pay ATAS a fee of $125 per program/episode per peer group if mailing to nine or fewer groups, or a flat fee of $1,250 per program/episode per peer group if mailing to 10 or more groups. Three episodes mailed to the entire voting body would cost $3,750 in ATAS fees for our hypothetical producer, according to Academy guidelines.

(In an unusual move, Showtime, with the help of partner Sony Pictures Television, mailed all 13 episodes of its acclaimed drama series “Huff” to the entire Academy earlier this year in an effort to reintroduce the series to potential voters. Doing the math of the ATAS guidelines, that decision translates into more than $16,000 in mailing rights alone).

Sending an unadorned disc in a plain packaging would be unthinkable, of course, so producers must incur design costs for the box and disc labeling, production costs for menu creation and authoring, and replication costs to strike the 11,800 DVDs (we’ll assume voters will receiving only DVDs to simplify the math).

According to an informal survey of production houses, these costs can vary significantly depending on how lavish the presentation, but for our hypothetical we’ll feature straightforward yet appealing DVD menus shrink-wrapped in a standard box with professional artwork, figure between $1 and $2 per disc, or somewhere between $11,800 and $23,600 to create enough packages to mail to the entire Acad. Let’s split the difference and call it $17,700.

So, after paying $3,750 to ATAS for mailing rights and $17,700 to design and press the DVDs (running total: $21,450), it’s time to ship the discs. All Emmy “for your consideration” mailings are done through a centralized mailing house, with single DVD boxes shipped at a rate of $3.50 plus tax, or just over $3.75 per unit. Therefore, mailing a single DVD box to the full Academy costs $44,250 (new running total: $65,700).

Next stop: trade ads. Opinions vary on the amount that might be necessary for a show to make an impact in an increasingly competitive environment, but spending $50,000 spread across the two daily trade papers and the Acad’s Emmy magazine, as well as possibly the two major TV weeklies would, if anything, be considered conservative. (New running total: approaching $120,000).

The costs are plainly high but the rewards can be astronomical. FX turned the Emmy world upside down in 2002 when its strategic campaign for “The Shield,” supported by production partners Sony and Fox Television Studios, yielded an actor in a drama series win for star Michael Chiklis, marking the first time a performer from a basic cable series had won TV’s highest honor.

The upset win helped FX plant its flag as a major purveyor of quality television, and in succeeding years the net has followed with Emmy-worthy skeins “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me,” both of which are also ratings hits.

FX PR boss John Solberg reminds that campaigns are not all about spending but, rather, about the quality of the programming.

“It makes the job so much easier when you truly have three critically acclaimed dramas,” and can therefore let the reviews do a lot of the talking, says Solberg. “As a network you have an obligation to support these shows. All we can do is get out there and support it and hope that voters recognize the work.

“Our campaigns are probably modest in comparison to those of HBO and Showtime, but the good thing for us is we have very active studio partners (Sony, Fox TV Studios and Warner Bros.) who really support us in the effort. We couldn’t do it without them.”

Showtime communications czar Richard Licata says the network will include a dozen projects, including episodes of drama series “The L Word” and “Huff,” as well as original pic “Our Fathers,” in its Emmy DVD box this season. As a pay cabler, Showtime sees Emmy noms and wins as a means to merchandising itself to potential subscribers.

“For us, it’s about getting as much quality attention as you can,” explains Licata, who will take out a 13-page ad layout in the June issue of Emmy magazine and marquee ads on the front of the daily trade papers showcasing the Showtime Emmy box, with the accompanying tagline “A box for those who think outside of it.”

“The name of the game is attention in a very crowded environment,” says Licata.

Ultimately, it’s impossible to say what will be most effective in getting the attention of voters, but most observers agree that all the money in the world won’t propel an undeserving program into Emmy’s rare air, given the increasingly difficult competition.

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