Three years ago, Netflix overwhelmed Television Academy members by sending out a 20-pound shipment of DVD screeners. It was an exercise in excess, as insiders suggested that the streamer spent as much as $4 million to produce and ship the multiple boxes.
Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos hated the idea of sending out these DVDs, which seemed like the antithesis of how audiences actually consume his company’s content. When asked last year what he would change about the Emmy race, he didn’t hesitate to respond: “The inefficiency of sending all those DVDs.” Streaming, he said, was the “practical, logical” answer for Emmy voters to catch up on contenders.
Yet if Netflix wasn’t going to stop sending them out, nothing was going to change any time soon. “Everyone else does,” Sarandos said last year. “We’re just trying to remain competitive.” It was a game of Screener Chicken, and no one wanted to blink.
That’s where the TV Academy decided to step in. “It was going to be hard for the industry to do it on their own,” said one Academy insider. “No one was going to be the first to do it. But it was outrageous how much money was being spent. So we started asking the question a year and a half ago, what would it mean if the TV Academy were to say no more?”
Numerous meetings with all the key constituents affected by the screener process had been held in recent months, and the reaction was nearly unanimous: Chuck ’em.
Additionally, with new chairman Frank Scherma, who campaigned on a platform of bringing new ideas and energy to the 25,000-member group, the screener issue was one he could address swiftly.
One publicist noted that, ironically, it might have been Netflix’s flood of screeners that spurred other companies to lobby for the change — as it became nearly impossible to compete with that kind of volume. What’s more, FYC campaigning has become more of an in-person experience, as outlets like Netflix and Amazon open event spaces and hold more screenings and panels. By cutting out physical screeners, networks and studios can reallocate those funds to more events.
“It was inevitable, both from a how-we-experience TV kind of way — who watches TV from DVDs or Blu-Rays anymore — and for financial reasons,” said awards consultant Jonathan Taylor of Robertson Taylor Partners. “With so much programming in the running now, even the big corporations would be budget-squeezed having to produce discs for all of their contenders.”
The Academy announcement will likely be applauded by studio and network publicity chiefs, who have been waiting for the day when screener mailers were eliminated. This allows everyone to be on the same playing field — and potentially save a chunk of money.
“I am jumping up and down,” one network awards guru told Variety on Friday. “It’s about time, right?”
According to execs familiar with the campaign process, a typical studio mailer with multiple titles can cost a minimum of $1 million. The TV Academy charges $200 per episode, per peer group (which currently number 29) — up to a flat rate of $2,000 per episode.
The TV Academy hasn’t yet determined how those fees might change (or not) in the new streaming-only screener world. The big savings for studios and networks come in eliminating DVD manufacturing and postage fees.
Going forward, networks and studios can upload their Emmy contenders to the TV Academy’s screener site, and/or launch their own. According to sources, hosting an FYC screener site costs less than $100,000. That may save the networks and studios hundreds of thousands of dollars annually vs. the old physical media.
But here’s perhaps the biggest benefit of them all: By cutting out DVDs and forcing more Academy members to watch streaming screeners, studios and networks will have the ability to dig into that online data and get a better sense of who’s watching what, and for how long. (It’s already how they’re quietly monitoring how much or how little TV reporters and critics watch their screeners.)
That could be hugely valuable data for Emmy strategists. Right now, no one knows how many voters actually watch those DVD screeners — and publicists often suspect that the majority of those DVD screeners remain in shrink-wrap, collecting dust, unopened.
This actually isn’t the first time the TV Academy has addressed the screener issue. Several years ago, it put specific rules in place to limit the size and scope of the DVD boxes, after they started to get too elaborate. The so-called “green revolt” led to a standardized look for the DVD mailers — but, ironically, it also made it harder to stand out.
But not everyone comes away a winner from the Academy’s decision. The Emmy For Your Consideration game helps fuel an entire Hollywood ecosystem, and the companies tasked with duplicating and mailing screeners on the behalf of studios and networks just lost lucrative contracts worth millions of dollars.
That’s partly why the TV Academy won’t implement the change until 2020, giving vendors at least a year to adjust their business plans. “I think everyone expected this at some point,” said one Academy source.
There’s also the question of whether this really levels the playing field. Audiences are used to watching Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu series via streaming. That could give them a leg up, as voters know exactly where to find those shows — but will have to make an extra effort to find broadcast and cable network streaming sites, and register to use them. (Also, while expensive, those hulking boxes, often sitting on dining room tables, served as a reminder to voters that certain shows exist.)
As for the issue of tech-adverse Academy members, particularly in the older demographic, the org is very aware of the question. They’re the reason the DVD screeners persisted. And although the Academy has been making an effort to bring younger members into the fold, those veteran members haven’t gone away.
“We can’t count on them finding it on our FYC site, even though we all do that too,” one studio publicist said last year. “Until we’re convinced everyone will find shows online, we have to do it this way.”
Now they’re going to have to double down on promoting those sites — and teaching some voters how to find those screeners. One source noted, however, that Phase II voting is already done via streaming screenings, and that there has been little pushback from voters.
Just in case, the Academy is investigating ways for tech-adverse members to watch screeners, such as computers set up at the Academy’s North Hollywood headquarters or various guild offices around town. The org is also looking at offering a downloadable option in case voters want to watch screeners on a plane without Wi-Fi.
Change, while difficult, is sometimes necessary. “It’s a win-win all around,” said Debra Birnbaum, Amazon Prime Video’s director of awards. “While we’re fans of our gorgeous screeners, we’re also fans of our gorgeous planet, and want to do our part to keep it that way.”