Laurie, Carell look for Emmy breakthrough

Been there, haven’t done that.

It could be the slogan for Emmy nominees Hugh Laurie (“House”) and Steve Carell (“The Office”). They are two of a handful of actors across several categories in this year’s race that have been on the ballot multiple times but never won gold. Both have just been nominated for a fourth time and are looking for their first chance to reach the stage.

So how do studios get Emmy voters excited about repeat also-rans — especially when competing against first-time buzz names, such as Aaron Paul and Jim Parsons.

Says one studio publicist: “When an actor has a particularly great season, we do the same things we usually do, but more intensely: We remind people of the great work that was done.”

Campaigns aren’t a last-minute effort. They can begin a year before the Emmy ceremony. One executive says her studio started strategizing for the 2010 campaign last month. Some studios, like ABC Disney, don’t break out individual actors, focusing their campaigns solely on entire shows. But all execs seem to agree the critical stage is getting an actor on the ballot in the first place, no matter how many times he’s been nominated.

“What has worked is a combination of publicity through print and electronic media, exposure to the show via DVD mailings, or customized online screening rooms where voters can watch episodes and consider them. Strategic advertising reminds voters how much they thought of a particular show,” Showtime publicity topper Richard Licata says.

The strategy has worked for the cabler, which this year earned 29 Emmy noms — including the second for “Dexter” star Michael C. Hall — the most ever for the net.

To keep actors such as Hall and others from ending up in the “always a groomsman” category, studios don’t go it alone. They work in tandem with the actor’s personal publicist to decide which interviews to accept and what else they can do to make the thesp stand out. There are special screenings, panels, and events such as the Paley Festival. Sometimes an advertising agency is hired.

And never forget that in a town built on egos and relationships, actors appreciate the effort a studio or network makes on their behalf — even if a campaign might not sway voters.

“There are times that I wonder if it would make any difference if we didn’t campaign,” a network publicist says, “but this industry is a lot about talent, and you need to support talent.”

Still, even the most clever campaign is no guarantee of a nom. In 2008, the “Believe in Steve” promotion for “The Office” star Carell used the topical theme of a presidential race, complete with slogan-bearing buttons and YouTube videos. Carell got on the ballot but didn’t win an Emmy.

After the nominations are announced, campaigns enter phase two of the race. This stage is much more difficult for studios and publicists to get their arms around, and they say they simply put their faith in Emmy voters to use their best judgment about performances.

Many actors will continue to do interviews with the press to try to keep the momentum that was created with the initial nomination. Episode screenings and panels are not as popular during Emmy season as they are during Oscars, and the TV Academy is reluctant to hold any panels at its headquarters in North Hollywood out of fear it would look like it is favoring a particular show and cast member.

So how do the actors feel about campaigning? At one of the parties at the recent Comic-Con confab in San Diego, some of the top TV talent were gathered poolside. If you wanted, you could label each according to a different kind of Emmy category: nominee, winner, snub. An actor in the latter category pointed out the major drawback of a nomination: “Who wants to be in competition with your friends?”

Still, studios keep innovating to get their talent noticed. This year, Showtime introduced an iPhone campaign, with screeners that could be viewed on the portable device.

Whatever gets the job done.

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