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Latecomers Try to Crash the Emmy Party as the Eligibility Deadline Looms (Column)

As May comes to a close, a last-minute surge of original TV series, specials and movies is going to keep audiences busy as they head into their summer vacations. The Television Academy cuts off Emmy eligibility on May 31, and many cable networks and streaming services are loading their lineups with under-the-wire contenders — including on that last possible day.

It just so happens that May 31 falls on a Friday this year, and several programmers are flooding it with shows for viewers to consume over the weekend while conveniently just squeaking into Emmy contention. But whether that approach really helps those shows’ awards chances is debatable.

Premieres on the final day of eligibility include HBO’s long-awaited “Deadwood” movie and Amazon Prime Video’s TV take on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s “Good Omens,” starring Michael Sheen and David Tennant. Netflix has the Ava DuVernay four-part limited series “When They See Us,” telling the story of the wrongfully convicted Central Park Five teens. Earlier in the week, National Geographic has its own limited series contender, the Julianna Margulies-led “The Hot Zone,” about the first Ebola outbreak.

That all comes after a busy May that also included series finales for “Game of Thrones,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “Veep,” as well as specials like ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel-produced “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons.’”

Conventional wisdom suggests that premiering so close to the Emmy cutoff helps with voter awareness. It’s why in the film world, most Oscar contenders squeeze in a limited release run at the end of the year before going wide just in time for the main campaign. 

And indeed, tune-in promos and billboards this time of year can help reinforce a program’s existence to TV Academy members; that’s also true for shows that return in June and July but are campaigning for a previous awards season.

“They found an enormous loophole here,” laments one producer whose show aired in the fall and has long been out of sight. 

But if last year’s last-minute launches are any indication, the strategy doesn’t always work. Programs that premiered in late May 2018 included Amazon’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” the first half of Netflix’s “Arrested Development” Season 5, Showtime’s “Patrick Melrose” and HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451.” None of them went on to win Emmys.

If anything, waiting until late May to premiere might be too late for Emmy voters inundated with TV screeners to watch and FYC events to attend. Adding a few more 11th-hour shows to their pile may not be the best way to grab their scattered attention.

Then there are the general life distractions of voters as their kids break from school and attention turns to the outdoors. It wasn’t too long ago that late May was considered one of the biggest TV dead zones of the entire year. The networks were airing season finales and getting ready to hang “Gone Fishin’” signs, as the repeat-filled wasteland of June through August was about to commence. No one in their right mind would premiere a show as audiences were planning their summer vacations.

Of course, that began to change as cable networks saw an opportunity for original fare in the summer months, and eventually the broadcasters kept the lights on in the off-season as well — mostly with lower-cost unscripted series. Still, you didn’t waste your best stuff during the warmest months of the year.

Yet, like just about every aspect of the modern TV business, streaming has upended the conventional wisdom on scheduling. Modern audiences are looking for TV shows to binge on the beach, and have the technology to do it. And streamers don’t follow Nielsen’s parameters to tell them when the TV season commences. Except for broadcasters, there is no “season” or “off-season” in the current TV world.

That’s why it might be time to get even more revolutionary and scrap the whole June 1 to May 31 Emmy eligibility period altogether. A traditional calendar year might make more sense because, as one cable exec points out, “That’s the way TV works now.” 

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