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Emmys: Basic Cable Networks Hold Their Own, With Nat Geo Leading the Way

The 2019 Emmys were a harsh, recurring reminder for broadcast networks that their awards lunch is being eaten by premium cablers and streaming services featuring buzzy prestige shows. But basic cablers, despite collectively logging a year-over-year decline in statuettes, managed to grab onto some key prizes with standout titles such as “Pose,” “Killing Eve” and “Fosse/Verdon” on Sunday night.

HBO (34), Netflix (27) and Amazon (15) were — perhaps unsurprisingly — the big winners by network this year, but in fourth place sat National Geographic, netting eight wins and easily besting broadcast giants NBC, CBS, Fox and ABC. About half a dozen basic cablers earned a total of 27 Emmys across the Creative Arts and telecast awards show, down from 40 last year, but still easily outperformed the Big Four’s 16-win evening, their lowest collective tally ever.

“It was fascinating that NatGeo did better than every broadcast network,” said Rich Licata of Licata & Co, an awards agency and consulting firm. “They realize that they need to be really aggressive during the campaigning period, and I think it’s paying off for them. I think it’s the quality of the programming, I think it’s the spend, and I think it’s the noise that you make.”

None of NatGeo’s wins came during the televised show, but during the prior weekend’s Creative Arts Emmy presentation, with rock-climbing documentary “Free Solo” bringing home seven out of the network’s eight awards. (NatGeo’s “Life Below Zero” rang up the last one for cinematography for a reality program.)

Touting “Free Solo” as the most Emmy-awarded docu ever, president of National Geographic Global Networks Courteney Monroe told Variety via email that the network was “beyond thrilled – and tremendously honored – to have garnered more Emmy wins than any other broadcast and basic cable network.”

“Just three years ago, we began our journey to become the leading destination for premium storytellers sharing important and compelling stories for a global audience,” she said. “And I like to think that’s what the Television Academy responded to and recognized this year.”

Still, the pool of basic cable networks that won accolades shrank significantly in 2019. A wider range of basic cablers brought home awards in 2018, 12 in all, including CNN, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and TBS — only six such networks did so this season.

FX Networks was last year’s top Emmys getter, with 12 wins, compared to just five this year. Even so, FX is holding its own, in Licata’s view, considering how vast the entertainment landscape has gotten. The cabler earned three Creative Arts Emmys and two during the Sunday telecast — most notably for Billy Porter’s lead drama actor triumph for his role in “Pose,” making history in the process, and Michelle Williams’ win for lead actress in a limited series for her work in “Fosse/Verdon.” (“Fosse/Verdon” made up the remaining FX wins.)

That category visibility matters to the networks. Porter and Williams’ high-profile victories, amplified by impassioned speeches touting representation and inclusion, fueled media coverage and will likely drive more viewers to “Pose” and “Fosse/Verdon” in the wake of their wins. The same can be said for BBC America and AMC following Jodie Comer’s lead drama actress win for “Killing Eve,” which was largely expected to be won by Sandra Oh — also a star of “Killing Eve.” That kind of promotion is invaluable.

Licata, who worked on Emmy campaigns for Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Fleabag,” and “A Very English Scandal” this season, noted that the awards campaign period is a good time to remind viewers that these shows exist.

“This is the time you should spend money on letting that audience know that you are around,” Licata said he tells his clients during Emmys season. “Once you brand a network and you have that show, it’s much easier to take that walk to the stage.”

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