Back on Feb. 29, Emmy For Your Consideration season kicked off with a unique panel hosted by Warner Bros. TV: Former “Masters of Sex” stars Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan reunited on stage to promote their new shows, Fox’s “Prodigal Son” and Hulu’s “Castle Rock,” respectively.
They didn’t realize it that night, but Sheen and Caplan wound up being two of just a handful of performers to take part in an in-person FYC event this season. Soon the industry — and most of the world — would shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Months later, Sheen was back on the Emmy circuit — but this time from home, promoting another one of his shows, AMC’s “Quiz,” via a Variety streaming panel.
Sheen recalls that Feb. 29 event and how, even then, it felt like things were rapidly changing: “I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to be on a stage about 6 feet away from Lizzy Caplan and the moderator, and everyone else is going to be in the audience, so I feel OK about it,’” he says. “But I also remember meeting the audience afterwards, and I was quite edgy about that already. I left New York a few days after that, so I got out just before everything really kicked off.”
In the days following that panel, a few others went on as planned, but most were canceled. By early March, the Television Academy put a halt to all in-person events, moving FYC screenings and panels to a livestream or recording option. Soon after, as network, studio and streaming execs lobbied the Academy to push back the FYC and voting windows, the org canceled all officially sanctioned campaign events.
“We really had to start thinking smart about how we stay competitive and stay on message in light of all the sensitivity in the industry with people out of work or, obviously, battling this illness,” says one awards consultant.
Those execs spent the past two months adjusting their Emmy plans to the new normal, and in recent weeks there’s been an increase in activity as campaigns have shifted to online, where talent and producers feel a bit more at ease in participating. Many have added a COVID-19 relief element, such as HBO’s recent announcement that it would take $1 million from its FYC and now-canceled Emmy party budget and give it to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles Emergency COVID-19 Crisis Fund. Amazon and Netflix also announced that they are redirecting campaign funds in a similar fashion.
It’s an Emmy season like no other, one that already promised to be different with the new ban on DVD screeners. But now also gone are the pricey pop-up experiences that Netflix (at Raleigh Studios) and Amazon (at Hollywood Athletic Club) usually throw this time of year, spending millions of dollars to lure in voters with the promise of celebrity-driven events, top-tier catering and Instagram-friendly installations.
“In some ways, the pandemic has leveled the playing field,” says one exec. “It has taken some of the more extravagant options off the table from the deep-pocketed streamers. There will be no more takeovers of event spaces for weeks on end. There’ll be no lavish wining and dining of the voters.”
In their place are virtual setups, such as Netflix’s “FYSee” platform, which promise a steady stream of the same kind of big-name panels normally held at its pop-up space. Others are relying on partnerships with trade publications (such as Variety’s Streaming Room) or guilds, such as the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s popular panel series, now also moved online. One exec says she’s been impressed by the number of people tuning into those talks — between 800 and 1,000, which is bigger than most Emmy FYC in-person audiences.
“Now, the only thing is that you don’t know what the engagement level is in a virtual chat,” one exec says. “It could be playing in the background; they could be half listening. It’s not the same experience.”
The events, after all, come without the up-close star selfies and free food that many TV Academy members had gotten used to over the years. “With an Academy membership you could eat out every night from literally March 1 to June 20-something on someone else’s dime,” says one awards exec. “And that’s obviously not happening this year.”
Coincidentally, many outlets had already built up more robust FYC sites in light of the DVD ban. As part of the decision to end those mailers, the TV Academy gave outlets a choice on how to alert members about their FYC screener site: via an email, a postcard or a booklet. At first, several networks and studios planned to send out a booklet. But with most of the industry now working from home, it’s unclear how many of those mailers will wind up unopened in the office. That is why most have switched to email, especially now that the Academy is allowing three emails, not just one. Amazon is one of the exceptions, sending out a 36-page booklet to voters.
Some networks and studios are also rethinking or downsizing their outdoor campaigns, as voters are likely spending less time on the roads. Amazon, for example, has repurposed the billboard space it had for various Emmy-eligible shows into “For Your Community” charitable efforts.
“We had a very robust out-of-home campaign this year and we have scaled back some,” says a network awards exec, who was able to shift some of his ad buys into July. Even if the streets are still quiet then, he reasons, “certainly people are in their cars going to grocery stores. They’re going to see some billboards and bus benches. But we had to be smart about it.”
No one seems to be boasting that the pandemic has saved them much money in campaign costs, however, given an economic uncertainty in the marketplace.
“Some of us are reducing our spend just because of the financial circumstances that our parent companies are in,” says one exec. “Others are just reallocating dollars that would be spent on events toward other ways of reaching voters. I don’t think people are looking at it as an opportunity to cost-save so much as it’s just a different economic environment. I think, post- pandemic, it’s easy to see everything returning to the same sort of frenzy of spending and parties and razzle dazzle, which is what show business is for.”