Take a drive on the Sunset strip this week and you’re sure to be bombarded by a kaleidoscopic array of “for your consideration” billboards calling like sirens to TV Academy voters. Pick up your car from valets at the Four Seasons and you’ll be greeted with a note to bear Netflix’s “The Crown” in mind. If you were out and about a few weeks ago, you may have even seen the characters of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” wandering around the streets of Beverly Hills.
We’re in the thick of Emmy campaign season, so much of this is to be expected. Nevertheless, everyone in Tinseltown seems to be in agreement: It’s gotten out of control.
“Campaigning has never been as voracious as it has been this year,” Richard Licata, a longtime TV communications executive and veteran of the Emmy circuit who last year launched his own company to service the industry, says. “I almost wonder if it’s all become white noise.”
The reason for the escalation is readily apparent; the crush of peak TV content, not to mention a daunting number of voters to reach (more than 21,000), means campaigns scramble to be recognized. This year, the TV Academy saw a record number of submissions across its countless Primetime Emmy categories. The danger, however, is a sea of choices rendering voters paralyzed with ballots in hand.
“I have 50 boxes in my family room,” Licata says. “I looked at them the other day and said, ‘How does anybody have time to even be a responsible voter?’ It’s too much too late.”
Emmy campaigning has always relied on a certain level of ingenuity out in the hustle and bustle of daily life to capture voter eyeballs. Whether playing video at gas stations, customizing an American Airlines Emmy series on New York-to-Los Angeles flights, or, like those valet tickets, buying the real estate on Starbucks cup sleeves, many of today’s tactics are old tricks. The challenge is innovating beyond that.
To that end, Amazon and Netflix have pulled out all the stops this year. The rival streamers set up separate installation spaces to enhance their portfolios for viewers. Amazon took over the Hollywood Athletic Club for two weeks for a series of screenings and panels, as well as a museum-like exhibition of materials from shows like “Transparent,” “I Love Dick,” and “Catastrophe.” Not long after, to pimp series like “House of Cards,” “Master of None,” and “Stranger Things,” Netflix launched something similar, dubbed the “FYSee” space, in the heart of Beverly Hills.
Just like premium cable networks, companies like Amazon and Netflix monetize on a subscription basis. For them, the value of Emmy recognition is all the more. “It’s one of the ways they make noise and demonstrate the value of membership,” one Emmy strategist says.
Looking for its first big Emmy success, Hulu sent upwards of 40 women dressed as handmaids into the streets of Los Angeles to promote the final episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” the day before ballots went out. And there have been stunts like that in the past. Showtime had New York City fountains dyed blood red to promote “Dexter” a few years ago, for example. Netflix touted “Arrested Development” and “House of Cards” with campaign lawn signs. The hope is that media (and social media) will take the baton and enhance the effort with coverage. “Otherwise it could just be a whisper in the wind,” says Tony Angellotti, a publicist and longtime Oscar consultant for Universal and Walt Disney Animation who, along with a number of other film-focused strategists, was recently called back to the Emmy fold as the demand for personnel increases.
Complaints this year have been leveled at Netflix, which already poses a threat to movie studios with its bedrock philosophy of shifting viewer habits to living rooms and iPads. The hand-wringing and pearl-clutching echoes the early years of HBO, when Hollywood felt an unwelcome change of tide as pay-television programming took root. But with Emmy campaigning, it’s the level of money flying around that has many wondering how level the playing field really is. Netflix would not discuss budget particulars.
The TV Academy, for good and bad, controls outreach to its membership. Unlike the film Academy, which adopts a certain laissez-faire attitude about serving as an intermediary between campaigns and voters, everything sent to Emmy voters has to go through the organization. Some strategists complain that it’s over-managed. Others suggest the film Academy take a similar approach (largely to remove the onus of tracking down and Rolodexing hundreds of new members every year).
Either way, even the tradition of booking events and screenings at the TV Academy’s North Hollywood headquarters has become a pain, and with escalating parking contracts and catering bills, an expensive one — if you can even squeeze in. From April through the beginning of voting last week, every single night was booked with a “for your consideration” screening. “That has never happened before,” Licata says. That competitive crush, as well as limitations of the space itself, has led some shows, such as NBC’s “This Is Us,” to hold major events off-site at locations like the Cinerama Dome.
But the TV Academy also plays it loose on creativity strictures with mailers. For instance, screeners for TBS’ “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” went out dolled up like Russian video cassettes, a wink toward an elusive tape of whatever allegedly happened between President Donald Trump and those Russian prostitutes in Moscow four years ago. That would never be allowed by the film Academy, which stipulates that screeners have the barest presentation and that the only accompanying artwork be the title treatment. (Though even that is a movable goal post; Disney/Pixar prepared screeners of “Cars” in 2006 with just the title treatment logo, but it was deemed too fancy by the Academy.)
Meanwhile, the voter solicitation landscape has exploded for the small screen, and by Licata’s estimation, far out-paced Oscar campaigning at this point. If there’s a villain in the scenario, it’s obviously a complex one. The wealth of content out there is a gift. But as long as the landscape is as cluttered as it is, so, too, will be the clamoring for consideration.
“It’s not like it’s one movie. We’re trying to get people to watch multiple episodes,” Licata says. “Because of the volume of shows now and everybody’s hunger to be noticed, campaigning got a little more colorful.”
To say the least.
(Pictured: “Stranger Things” stars Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, and Noah Schnapp at Netflix’s FYSee space.)