Minis turn to hard sell

A&E, Hallmark, cablers, networks all fight for Emmy's attention

One of the toughest Emmy categories to pitch to voters is arguably the miniseries and telepic race. While viewers often have familiarity with weekly dramas and sitcoms such as “Frasier” and “ER,” they are often in the dark when it comes to naming all the noteworthy TV movies and minis that pop up during any given season.

That’s where all the gushy trade ads and the Martha Stewart-type video packaging come in handy. This year, however, the sheer number of prestige projects available on the small screen seem to be causing a few headaches.

“I can honestly say that it was harder this year than it was before,” says Mark Zakarin, Showtime’s executive VP of original programming. “The process of wheedling through all the titles to get the top contenders was much more challenging. The cliche is true that these are all our children, but you’ve got to be strategic about the whole campaign.”

Some of Showtime’s hot tickets this year are “Strange Justice,” “Harlan County War,” “On the Beach,” “Execution of Justice,” “Noriega: God’s Favorite” and “A Cooler Climate,” many of which have raised the profile of the pay cabler in the past season.

A&E, which won the minis race last year with its underdog title “Hornblower” miniseries, is certainly aware of how to launch a strategic campaign. The adventures-at-sea starring then-unknown lead actor Ioan Gruffudd managed to beat out NBC’s two sweeps entries “The ’60s” and “The Temptations,” CBS’ glossy star-packed “Joan of Arc” and PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” presentation of “David Copperfield” (with Charlotte Rampling and, coincidentally, Gruffudd as Pip).

“It’s important to target the projects that had some profile and attention,” says Delia Fine, A&E’s VP of film, drama and performing arts. “There’s a danger for a network to support everything on their slate and you’ve got to be selective.”

Fine admits that the cabler’s breakthrough Emmy performance has raised the bar considerably.

“We’re spending more money and are putting a hefty push for the shows that we think should be in the race,” she says. “Between ‘Dash and Lily’ and ‘Hornblower’ we had 14 nominations, and that changed A&E’s perception in many people’s minds.”

Fine says as a direct result of “Hornblower’s” trophy, the cabler was able to secure the original cast and crew, and produce four more hours of the nautical tale.

According to Fine, A&E has high hopes for the well-received adaptation of “Vanity Fair,” and telepics “The Crossing,” with Jeff Bridges, “P. T. Barnum,” with Beau Bridges.

Kelly Coogan Swanson, director of marketing for Hallmark, says her company will certainly be spending a lot of money on ads and sending out tapes (around 9,600 copies) to members in order to ensure exposure to Robert Halmi Sr.’s splashy minis.

“Since most of the Academy didn’t watch all 10 hours of ‘The Tenth Kingdom,’ these tapes give them the opportunity to catch the production and to judge it from a technical standpoint,” says Coogan Swanson. “Very often, these lavishly produced fantasies manage to be recognized in the costumes, makeup and technical categories.”

Besides “The Tenth Kingdom,” Hallmark’s lengthy alternate fairy-tale fantasy, the outfit is also pushing its “Jason and the Argonauts” (NBC) and “Arabian Nights” (ABC), both noted for topnotch f/x wizardry, while TNT is handling the promotion of “Animal Farm” “Don Quixote” and “A Christmas Carol.”

Coogan Swanson admits that there is a role played by presentation and packaging when it comes to grabbing voters’ attention.

“Generally when you have so many titles competing for the voters’ attention, you have to make them stand out,” she says. “That’s why we have traditionally put a lot of effort in offering the tapes in sophisticated, high-end packages.”

Perhaps that’s why an org like PBS, which isn’t exactly swimming in advertising and promotional money, has to rely on the kindness of word of mouth to increase awareness of its very British dramas.

“We made our mark with period costume dramas such as this year’s ‘The Aristocrats,'” says Rebecca Eaton, exec producer of PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre” series. “Of course, our highest-profile entry this year is ‘David Copperfield,’ with Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins. I would argue that it’s certainly this generation’s defining version of the Dickens’ novel.”

And the cost of Emmy attention doesn’t look like it will wane anytime soon.

“I’ve been doing this job for 15 years, and with each passing year, it becomes more of a David and Goliath situation for us. We can’t compete in terms of advertising and fancy tape packaging money. Every dime we get goes into production.”

All complaints aside, however, Eaton has a pretty good track record with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

“We’ve won 29 Prime Time Emmys in the past, and we think it would be pretty nice to get our 30th Emmy during out 30th anniversary year,” she hints, discreetly.

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