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TV’s Emmy Arms Race: Why This Could Be the Most Expensive Season Ever

Television historians may well remember 2013 as the year that everything changed — and that goes for the Emmy Awards as well.

That year, Netflix’s “House of Cards” won three trophies, including one for director David Fincher, making it the first streaming series to win an Emmy. The dam had broken.

Netflix earned 14 nominations in 2013 — not bad for a service with just a handful of shows and a programming platform that was still seen as a bit of a novelty. It’s been only six years since then, but that Emmy race almost seems quaint in retrospect.

Now, of course, like an invading army embraced by the masses, the streaming services — along with a handful of cable outlets that were also seen as usurpers just a decade earlier — dominate the television conversation. But instead of touting audience ratings, they’re riding high on the kind of buzz and validation that awards, and particularly Emmys, can bring.

As Silicon Valley takes on the Emmy economy, it’s bringing the same fat checkbooks with which it upended the programming game. (Old-school entertainment giants have often grumbled about the deep pockets of tech companies, which are able to spend money without being held to the same level of scrutiny that Wall Street applies to traditional media companies, because they operate under different business models.) Outlets like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are emulating the strategy that HBO originated by spending tens of millions of dollars on Emmy campaigns designed to rack up brand-building awards — and ultimately attract subscribers. HBO, which is spending on par with the streamers, looks to defend its turf as the ultimate Emmy darling while other networks attempt to keep up.

CREDIT: Variety

“For all but a finite few for which it’s strategic, it seems like a bit of an arms race at this point,” says Fox Entertainment chairman Charlie Collier.

Industry observers are bracing for what may become the loudest, most expensive Emmy campaign season in history.

“The amount of money spent by certain networks, particularly in the scripted realm, is extraordinary,” says A+E Networks programming president Rob Sharenow. “The gross domestic product of some countries is probably smaller than what’s spent to market and promote certain shows. I think you have the SVOD services and the pay services in a war to the death.” Last year, that kind of commitment paid off for Netflix. Fueled by the sheer tonnage of its offerings, the streaming giant scored 112 total Emmy nods — ending HBO’s 17-year streak as nomination leader.

With Netflix aiming to better that benchmark, the entire industry began to draw up Emmy plans even before Oscar season was over. The Emmy For Your Consideration campaigning officially kicked off March 2, with the first event of the season: a screening and panel discussion for the new Netflix comedy “Turn Up Charlie,” starring Idris Elba.

Over the next several months, the TV Academy’s 25,000 members will be invited to hundreds of similar events. Countless photo shoots, interviews and programs promoting various category contenders will be produced. And then Netflix and Amazon will attempt once again to outdo each other with full-scale installation experiences.

Last year, Netflix took over multiple soundstages at Raleigh Studios to erect Instagram-friendly exhibits based on its shows while also hosting a series of panels at the Hollywood site. The streaming giant hasn’t yet revealed where, or how much larger, this year’s event will be. Similarly, Amazon has taken over the Hollywood Athletic Club for several weeks during the past few campaigns to create experiences inspired by its shows. It’s expected to be back in that location this year.

Showtime co-head of entertainment Jana Winograde notes that it has almost become apples and oranges to try to pit outlets with diverse financial structures against each other. “We’re all competing for the same consumers but in a completely different way,” Winograde says. “Calling them all the same thing is getting harder.” A former ABC exec, Winograde lamented that the shows she used to work on in broadcast are almost entirely unable to compete now.

Broadcast and basic cablers derive income from advertising; premium cable and even Netflix lean on subscriptions; e-tailer Amazon aims to drive consumers to buy more goods online by tying its programming to free shipping of its myriad consumer products. “They get to be judged by tech metrics,” says the linear network exec. “We’re tethered to a company that has earning requirements.”

CREDIT: Variety

But a more level playing field may be on the way. There’s been talk recently that the TV Academy — which in the past enacted strict limits to DVD packaging when such mailers got out of hand — may be ready to create an expense cap on campaigns.

“I think they’ve got to figure out some kind of limitation on spending,” says CBS chief creative officer and Showtime CEO David Nevins. “It leads to distortions. I think it’s something the TV Academy is looking at. It’s asymmetrical warfare.”

As head of an independent player, Sony Pictures Television Studios president Jeff Frost agrees that he’d like to see a way to even the odds for programs that are unable to raise massive Emmy war chests. “We’ve suffered from that on some of our shows,” Frost laments.

The Academy declined to comment on the possibility of a cap, responding in a statement only that “We work very closely with our partners and their awards teams to ensure the integrity and fairness of the competition is upheld.”

HBO programming president Casey Bloys doesn’t think spending limits are the answer. “It’s crazy, it’s a lot of money, and you have to work hard to make sure your show breaks through and gets out there,” he says. “It’s frustrating and difficult. But a cap doesn’t seem to make sense to me. You try to do the best you can for your shows.”

It might also be impossible to judge what gets spent where. These days, networks often see overlap between their tune-in marketing budgets and awards campaigns. Cable and streaming networks have taken to launching new seasons of shows in spring and early summer, and then capitalizing on that buzz and promotion to also remind voters that the show’s previous season is eligible for Emmy consideration.

“The gross domestic product of some countries is probably smaller than what’s spent to market and promote certain shows.”
Rob Sharenow, A+E Networks

Epix president Michael Wright calls a cap an “interesting notion.” “Nobody expects it to be a fair fight, but everybody should have a fighting chance,” he says. “I wouldn’t know how to execute it or frame it or plan it. But I see the merit behind the idea.”

Without a spending cap, the big-money outlets have exacerbated what had already become a bit of a class system in Emmy campaigning. Now, others are trying to keep up with the streaming Joneses — even if it means diverting budgets from other areas. One Emmy consultant says he heard from a small network willing to spend $1.2 million for a six-month campaign in order to at least be seen as an Emmy player: “I’ve been in meetings where the head of a network that’s not on the radar will turn to colleagues and say, ‘Why don’t we take money out of that budget and put it into this.’ They figure it will help them attract better talent and showrunners if they’re on the map.”

The thing is, they’re not wrong. The cost of an Emmy has been growing for years, ever since HBO upped its game in the 1990s. There was a method to the madness, and FX Networks CEO John Landgraf tips his cap to how the pay-cable giant changed the game, using critical acclaim and awards to build itself into one of TV’s most valuable properties.

“Think about the three-, and then the four-broadcast network era, when an Emmy was an ego stroke; it was nice to have,” Landgraf says. “But it didn’t have much economic value. HBO came along and figured out quite cleverly that an Emmy didn’t necessarily translate into ratings, or into instantaneously increasing your revenue — but if you could do what HBO did, which was grow into a business that had the most Emmy nominations and Emmy wins year after year, and do it for well over a decade, what you were doing was creating a brand.”

Now, he adds, HBO is the most profitable content provider. “Of all of the shows HBO has ever programmed, only a handful would be something you would brag about from a ratings standpoint. And yet they’re making more money than anyone.”

Emmy strategist Richard Licata, who helped spearhead the HBO campaigns in the early 1990s, remembers the blowback the pay cabler got from broadcasters.

Ted Sarandos’ Netflix scored 112 Emmy noms last year, ending HBO’s streak as leader.
Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

“We were spending $500,000 on mailings, special screenings and advertising,” he says. “And at the time we were publicly criticized for it … an early indicator of how the traditional networks felt about the threat of cable TV nipping at their hallowed heels. In 1993, HBO spent $1 million on its Emmy campaign efforts and made history that September, winning more awards than [most of] the broadcast networks for the first time.”

It’s a strategy FX emulated on the basic cable side, starting with “The Shield”; AMC then copied it with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” The Emmy Awards became the ticket to credibility, with value in the eyes of subscribers.

But as the industry has bulked up and entered an era of Too Much TV, the Emmy campaign now has a secondary goal for outlets: trying to cut through the noise and get people to at least sample their shows.

“It makes sense in a world of peak TV where we have a cluttered marketplace,” Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke says. “If you have something amazing that’s a unicorn, you want everybody to be screaming [about it] from the hilltops. There’s a lot of great stuff in everybody’s pipeline, and you just want to compel people to watch it.”

Plus, Salke says, Amazon has data to back up the notion that Emmy love can translate to greater viewership — especially in the case of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which won the Emmy last year for outstanding comedy. “It would be growing anyway, but we do credit some of that with it being in the [awards] conversation,” she says.

The growth of the Emmy competition is staggering. In 1992, there were 29 dramas and 50 comedies submitted for eligibility. By 2012, the year before the arrival of the streaming army, 87 shows were submitted for outstanding drama series consideration, while 64 shows were entered for best comedy. In 2018, that number had soared to 159 drama contenders and 117 comedy entrants.

“When you have this kind of competition in the marketplace and the stakes are this high, I’m not surprised” at the money being spent, Hulu senior vice president of originals Craig Erwich says.

Producers and execs say they’re relieved that, at least so far, Emmy campaigning hasn’t gone the often dark and negative route of the Oscar race. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of jockeying behind the scenes. Part of a strategist’s job is to figure out how a show’s airdate might affect its eligibility — and whether there’s a way to stretch the definition of a program’s genre in order to squeeze it and its performers into less competitive categories.

Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” exhibit took over the Hollywood Athletic Club last year.
Todd Williamson/January Images

For example, it’s mighty convenient that HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” both won’t be back until June, taking them out of a crowded 2019 field, although their respective networks swear the lag time is due to production concerns.

Ironically, that means those networks will have to spend more next year to remind voters of programs that aired nearly a year earlier.

Meanwhile, even minus all the exorbitant extras, the Emmy race is already an expensive one. For Your Consideration events have become a bit of a necessary evil for networks and studios, especially now that they’re up against streaming services planning upwards of 40 such get-togethers per year.

That means the staggering number of shows has created an FYC logjam. Every January, reps from the networks and studios attend a TV Academy lottery to select dates for their For Your Consideration events. But with outlets like Netflix planning so many, there’s concern from smaller outlets that the competition has been hoarding too many dates.

The Academy now allows multiple events each night. But the networks and studios still aren’t sure attendees are on hand to learn about the show they’re touting — or even if their event is ultimately moving the needle. And the events aren’t free: An average FYC screening costs $50,000 to pull off.

Talent, however, has gotten used to the idea that being present on the stump is part of the job. “Veep” executive producer Dave Mandel admits that the Emmy campaign trail “is a very strange thing” but that he’s happy to do it if it means promoting and supporting his show. “Emmy is a mercurial lady,” he says. “I was a longtime visitor to the awards with some very good shows, and you get used to whatever happens, happens.”

One of the biggest expenses among Emmy campaigners, however, will soon be going away. It’s the one thing that engendered united griping among streaming, cable and broadcast outlets: the dreaded DVD mailer. The Academy plans to ban DVDs as of 2020, although some outlets had already planned to eliminate them this year. The decision to drop the DVDs has been almost unanimously celebrated in the TV biz.

“It seemed like DVDs are such an antiquated thing and so wasteful and detrimental to the environment,” says Starz programming president Carmi Zlotnik, who was part of the TV Academy executive committee that worked to outlaw the screeners. “If you don’t have to clutter up people’s offices and homes with tons of DVDs, you’re actually doing them a favor.”

The screeners have been pricey for both networks and studios. A typical studio mailer with multiple titles might cost a minimum of $1 million. In addition to the manufacturing and shipping costs, the Academy charges a flat rate of $2,000 per episode if you’re shipping to 10 or more of its peer groups. That means if you’re sending out a complete 10-episode series, the fee alone could be $20,000. Send out 10 shows, and that’s $200,000 just in fees.

The Academy will likely try to sell the idea to networks and studios that its own viewing platform is the only way to guarantee reaching its membership — a mailing list that it keeps under lock and key. “None of us have that list, and they’re the only game in town,” says one consultant. “Either use them or run the risk of having members not see your programming.”

Ultimately, the Academy may be leery of centering too much attention on exorbitant spending. The Emmy race, after all, is extremely lucrative for the Academy itself: The Primetime Emmy Awards generated nearly $30 million in revenue for the organization in 2017, while its expenses for the event clocked in at $10.9 million.

The TV Academy plans to ban DVD mailers from the Emmy race starting in 2020.

Of course, there’s always the debate of how much all that campaigning really matters, particularly when Emmy voters tend to pick repeat winners.

“The fact that someone like [‘Orphan Black’ star] Tatiana Maslany won an Emmy, when certainly BBC America is not the most deep-pocketed spender in the Emmy campaign, [proves] there are some shows that the critics and Emmy voters just love to love,” says AMC Networks president of entertainment networks Sarah Barnett.

And this year, there’s the overriding sense that HBO’s retiring “Game of Thrones” and “Veep” may have already locked up the key drama and comedy races.

But no one can really quit the Emmys — including even the broadcast networks, which recently renewed through 2026 their “wheel” deal (most recently priced at $8.25 million annually) to rotate the rights to air the awards broadcast.

“People put so much sweat equity into these productions, and they want to get the recognition that they think they deserve,” Winograde says.

Danny Strong (“Game Change”) goes a step further. “I love my Emmys!” he exclaims. “They’re out in my living room and not in a humble way. I’ve got spotlights on them and disco lights!”

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