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Cablers’ eyes are behind the prize

In their Emmy campaigns, niche webs have a goal beyond winning: recognition

Bonnie Hammer knows that “Battlestar Galactica” is alien to most Emmy voters.

The critically acclaimed skein isn’t one that fits in the kudofest’s universe: It’s set in space. On the Sci Fi Channel. With a largely unknown cast.

Three strikes? Not according to the president of USA Network and Sci Fi, who believes the show deserves an Emmy nom for drama so much that she’s putting her money where her mouth is. Hammer’s team is spending what insiders peg to be more than $1 million on the Emmy campaign behind “Galactica” — hefty coin for a basic-cable net.

She’s not alone, either.

“Battlestar” is just one of several players from basic cable joining the race for TV’s top series kudos. Waging equally pricey drama campaigns are TNT for “The Closer,” FX for “The Shield” and four other one-hours, and USA for “Monk” and “The 4400.”

Emmy recognition, however, is hardly the endgame.

Unlike winning an Oscar, taking home an Emmy doesn’t necessarily translate to ratings boosts: Viewership for Fox’s “Arrested Development” actually shrank soon after that show won for comedy series.

Rather, the act of awards campaigning itself has become a proficient way to lift the rep of TV’s niche networks.

After the TV Academy feted Michael Chiklis of “The Shield” with a lead actor win and short-lived FX comedy “Lucky” with basic cable’s first comedy writing nom, FX soon became known as the HBO of the ad-supported world — upheld not by noms but by smart marketing of all the channel’s adult dramas.

And the spending in recent years has often paid off with actual nominations.

Ratings-challenged Showtime drama “Huff” scored seven noms, including one for lead Hank Azaria last season.

Most cablers can’t splurge for Emmys the way the Big Four or the pay nets do, but execs are willing to take on the campaign costs to gain the halo effect a few flashy ads can have on a network.

Actual payoff, Showtime exec VP Rich Licata says, is the prestige and industry interest a campaign creates in a network. Cable operators, for example, are more willing to market a show that’s buzzworthy within the industry.

“It’s more likely for the affiliates to put more of their own marketing dollars behind an Emmy-nominated program when they’re making a push for new subscribers,” he says. “That kind of added value is why the campaign itself can be worth the cost.”

For Sci Fi, which won an Emmy for the Steven Spielberg-produced mini “Taken” in 2001, the campaign has become a way to “help the genre break through barriers. It’s now a necessary step in changing the perception of what we do,” Hammer says.

The “Battlestar” promos downplay both the title and its home on Sci Fi, using only critics’ quotes against a black backdrop.

“A lot of people won’t watch something if they hear the words ‘sci-fi,’ and, of course, we want our fair shot at an Emmy,” Hammer continues. “But it’s also being able to applaud work we’re proud of. It makes the creative community want to work with us because they see that programs we do will be recognized and commended.”

Talent relations is a big part of why Turner is getting behind “The Closer” and Spielberg’s Western “Into the West,” says senior VP of programming for TNT and TBS Michael Wright.

“When outside talent sees our commitment to quality — quality that we believe is Emmy-worthy — they feel more comfortable coming to cable,” he says. “We wouldn’t be working with Stephen King or Ridley Scott if they didn’t believe we could produce programming of award-winning caliber.”

FX president-general manager John Landgraf points out that accumulating crix’ quotes in Emmy ads is one of the best branding tools in his arsenal.

“It’s helped herald FX’s arrival as a place for quality television,” he says. “Unless I aggregate those reviews into two-page spreads, I don’t think most people in the industry know what the critics are saying, and frankly, I think they’re ahead of the Emmys in terms of praising deserving shows.”

And though cable heads are hardly placing bets on their

lesser-seen shows, the re-introduction of blue-ribbon panel judging is cause for hope.

Voters chose 10-15 finalists in the main acting and series categories, which were evaluated over the June 24-25 weekend by volunteer Acad members who gathered in org’s North Hollywood HQ to screen episodes and judge based on those merits alone. Noms are announced July 6.

John Leverence, senior VP of awards for the TV Academy, says the process “levels the playing field 100% because every single program will be considered on its own terms” and not by its reputation.

Members will view the 15 highest vote-getters in the lead acting categories, which may include thesps from less-watched basic-cable shows like Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos in “Battlestar,” Kyra Sedgwick in “The Closer” or Denis Leary in “Rescue Me.”

Seeing some of those perfs recognized and supported with Emmy campaigns — let alone with noms — would surely add incentive for a thesp considering work on basic cable.

“Ratings are not the main incentive anymore,” Licata says.

“The landscape is so crowded that to program your network competitively, you’ve got to launch an Emmy campaign to let agents and managers know you’re serious about working at a quality level.”