Cablers hope move puts shows on voters' radar

Without its massive screener push, “Crash” might never have earned its Oscar nomination — much less the best picture trophy that followed — and similar examples exist in the world of television. But unlike Oscar screeners, which have strict rules governing how they can be packaged and “marketed,” the world of Emmy for-your-consideration DVDs is a lawless frontier, where a smart package could sway voters in a show’s favor.

“The people who send these things are very creative marketing types,” says John Leverence, senior VP of awards for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. “It’s a knee-jerk response for them to package these things in the most interesting, engaging way they can.”

Indeed, the past few years have seen Emmy screeners delivered in paint cans (CBS’ “A Painted House”), tropical survival kits (Fox’s “Temptation Island”) and stone tablets (ABC’s “The Ten Commandments”). And while all this window dressing is fun and creative, it often leaves TV execs wondering if the purpose of screeners has somehow gotten lost in the process.

“Screeners are intended to introduce Academy members to programming they may not have seen,” says CBS senior VP of communications Chris Ender, but “members are, by and large, television historians, students and fans. They’re very savvy and familiar with almost all the programming in the market.”

So if most of the voters already know what the shows are, what’s the point of sending screeners? Typically, the flashiest mailings come from cablers trying to draw attention to shows that aren’t nearly as popular as network skeins, the theory being that the right package might convince voters to consider a show they hadn’t otherwise sampled.

“The clearest evidence I ever had that the box had the potential to influence people,” says Showtime’s Richard Licata, was with the feevee outlet’s 2005 “Huff” campaign. Although the show premiered in November to critical raves, it didn’t land with audiences the way the network had hoped. So when screener time rolled around, Licata, Showtime’s executive VP of communications, got clever. Instead of sending out the traditional two or three episodes, he sent the entire season. “Lo and behold,” he says, “it wound up getting seven Emmy nominations. The show had been off the air for months, so the only thing in (voters’) minds was the box.”

Indeed, two companies — Showtime and HBO — repeatedly set the standard for sophistication in screener campaigns. HBO pioneered the practice of sending screeners in the early 1990s, and Showtime continually takes it to new levels with innovative packaging and tactics such as providing voters with entire seasons.

“It’s like an arms race trying to keep up,” says Ender. “It’s probably more helpful for a cable series than a network series, because broadcast networks (already reach) such a mass audience.”

Which is why some networks are revamping their strategy altogether. BBC America, for example, uses their screeners less as a competition tool and more as a branding device.

“It’s a key part of our profile,” says Amy Mulcair, VP of publicity for BBC Worldwide America. “We’ve always been the quirky, under-the-radar, slightly alternative (channel). We have a particular voice and feel … and our screeners follow that.”

This year, BBC America is touting its “green” packaging, complete with recycled paper, soy/vegetable ink and a special environmental message.

In another eco-friendly move, both CBS and 20th Century Fox are screening Emmy contenders online (see story at left).

“It’s getting harder and harder to stand out in the DVD process,” says Ender. “We wanted to make a statement that we’re doing something different. It’s partly an environmental statement and partly taking the next step into the digital age.”

At the end of the day, of course, Emmy voters aren’t voting on the cleverness or social consciousness of a campaign; they’re voting on the virtues of the program. Which means the quality of a show has to speak for itself.

“Ultimately, I could sit and watch 12 episodes of something and say, ‘Eh, I really don’t like this show.’” says Licata. So “whether it’s the design of the box or the generosity inside the box” — or, of course, no box at all — “it’s all about how good the show is.”

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