TV Academy’s Emmy Screener Ban Is Here to Help the Planet, but Not Necessarily the Wallet

Emmy campaigns navigate new screener rules, and also adapt (and in some cases, cancel) events over coronavirus concerns.

Emmy DVD Screeners

The Television Academy’s decision to ban DVD mailers from the Emmy Awards campaign initially earned widespread raves from networks and studios. But then came the fine print. Because of new fees attached to their online Emmy screeners, several major outlets have expressed frustration that they’re not saving money like that thought they would once the DVDs went away.

“It’s really costly,” says one awards executive at a major outlet who, like everyone contacted for this story, asked not to be named, for fear of angering the TV Academy. “But I guess you’ve got to pay to play.”

As Emmy For Your Consideration season gets underway (the first officially sanctioned event was held on Feb. 29), the TV networks, studios and streamers are putting the finishing touches on their 2020 awards campaigns. The race promises to be more competitive than ever, as new entrants such as Apple TV Plus, HBO Max, Disney Plus and Quibi enter the fray.

But with an open question of whether voters will actively seek out streaming FYC sites, and the growing concern over how the coronavirus (COVID-19) will limit in-person events, awards strategists are getting more nervous over how to get their shows noticed in that glut of contenders.

With last year’s top winners, “Game of Thrones” and “Fleabag” having finished their runs, there’s plenty of opportunity for fresh blood in this year’s contest. And with so many contenders in the hunt, as many as 400 FYC events are expected to be held over the next several months — “which is absolutely nuts,” says one executive handling awards for his network.

In the age of Peak TV, the Emmy For Your Consideration screener box sets had become notorious — such as the year Netflix sent out a hefty 20-pound box filled with its contenders. A typical network or studio mailer with multiple titles could cost a minimum of $1 million.

And often, those boxes would collect dust as they piled up on Academy members’ coffee tables — before heading to the landfill as environmental nightmares. So when the org decided the time was right to eliminate those physical screeners, the industry universally cheered. Starting this year, networks and studios are no longer allowed to send physical screeners to the Television Academy’s approximate 25,000 members. Not only would it help the business go green, but some assumed that they would see a big cost savings.

“We did a little dance,” said one studio exec. “We thought, fantastic, we’ll all have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend on other Emmy initiatives.”

Under the previous rules, networks and studios were required to pay the Academy fees of $200 per episode, per peer group (which currently number 29) — up to a flat rate of $2,000 per episode — to include a show on a DVD screener.

The DVD mailers were a lucrative source of income for the TV Academy, and the org wasn’t about to lose that. That’s why the Academy found a way to go eco-friendly while also maintaining its fees: Charging for digital screeners, which previously had been free.

“The Academy is definitely the big winner in this,” says an awards-focused exec. “They did this in the smartest way; they got everyone excited that you’re not going to get DVDs anymore, but now it’s become a cash cow.”

Each comedy, drama, limited series or TV movie will cost $8,000 to stream on an FYC site (whether it’s the outlet’s own site or the Academy’s viewing platform), followed by $6,000 for competition program, structured reality program, unstructured reality program and variety talk series.

Program categories at the $4,000 level include animated program, children’s program, documentary or nonfiction series, hosted nonfiction series or special and variety sketch series. And at the $2,000 level are short form categories, documentary or nonfiction special, and variety specials. Individual achievement categories will cost $200 per episode.

Those figures don’t sound large, but for bigger networks and studios with dozens and dozens of programs, the cost can add up fast. And that’s where some of the grumbling has come in.

“I think the fees are incredibly inflated, considering they’re charging you to put a show on your own FYC site,” says one network exec who handles awards campaigns. “Look, I get it, it’s a business; everybody has to make money. But it seems a little bit inflated compared to what the DVD costs were.”

Others are more sanguine about the changes, noting that costs haven’t gone up — they just haven’t gone dramatically down, making the transition a bit of a wash. For smaller networks and studios, not having to compete with the larger DVD box mailers could, perhaps, even out the playing field a bit more. And some campaigns will indeed see costs go down, depending on how many shows they promote and how they contact voters.

That’s because the TV Academy made a bigger effort this year to give networks and studios options on how to reach members. They now have a choice on how to alert TV Academy members about their FYC screener site: They can send an email, a postcard or a booklet. Many of the larger outlets are opting for the booklet, which comes with several strict parameters. The number of pages is determined by the number of programs on your FYC site, up to 50. If you have more than 50 properties, you can produce multiple booklets — but they have to be mailed to voters at the same time.

That means even though the DVDs are gone, TV Academy members should still brace for stuffed mailboxes — albeit with packages that are much easier to recycle.

“That still costs money too,” says a network exec. “At least there’s flexibility. If I have 20 shows on my site, I can do a 20-page book. Every show has to be represented in the book, but I can do 16 pages [for my marquee property] and put everything else on the other four pages. That allows a little creativity in design.”

Campaigners are still trying to figure out what voters are going to gravitate toward. While those bulky DVD sets were a physical reminder about programs in contention — even if those discs went unwatched — now it’s up to the booklets, postcards or emails to point Academy members to the digital screeners. “I don’t worry much about the money, I worry more about how am I now going to let people know that I have shows coming out later, after my mailer is already out,” says one exec.

Some outlets are exploring the email option, but others fear emails could get lost in spam filters, or buried in recipients’ in-boxes. The booklets appear to be most popular because there’s still a value in getting something physical in front of voters.

The question will now be when to strategically send those mailers out, because outlets will only get a single shot. In the past, networks and studios could mail out multiple DVD screeners throughout the season. But the booklets are a one-time-only proposition.

“We’re doing outreach to hear some of those concerns,” says TV Academy president/COO Maury McIntyre. “Is there more flexibility that we can think about next year, to allow more promotional opportunity? We want this to be useful for the partners; we want this to feel like a good investment for them. All of that we’re absolutely going to talk about. We’ll see how it plays out this year.”

Also evolving are the FYC campaign events, which have grown in size as streamers Netflix and Amazon create month-long pop-up spaces for their panels and exhibits — forcing competitors to keep up. The TV Academy now allows two officially sanctioned events per night, and each event in Los Angeles requires either a rental package for the Wolf Theatre at its North Hollywood headquarters (around $13,000 plus parking), or a blackout fee ($5,000, which can be split with another entity) if you’re doing the event off campus.

“I think there are definitely going to be more events,” says a cable exec. “But I’m not sure networks are suddenly flush with all these savings to do more. I think people are going to have to spend more because it’s so unbelievably competitive. But I also believe there’s nothing better than having voters experience your product, whether it’s a screening or Q&A or some type of other event where they can breathe and touch and meet all the people involved in your project. There’s no substitute for that.”

However, concerns over the coronavirus have has already led the TV Academy to limit audience interaction at FYC events, banning autographs, selfies, meet-and-greets and questions from the audience. The org is also strongly recommending that additional catering staff be hired to service food and beverage stations to avoid guest contact with serving pieces. That may require additional staffing costs of as much as $2,000. (Alternatively, the Academy said it supported the idea of pre-packaged meals for audiences.)

Most FYC dates are still moving forward, but Netflix canceled its first event of the season, for “Lost in Space,” while Lifetime canceled its gatherings, including ones for “Surviving R. Kelly Part II: The Reckoning” in New York and “The Clark Sisters” and “Patsy & Loretta” in Los Angeles.

As the situation evolves, the TV Academy informed members that it was offering contingency plans, such as live streaming panels without an audience. The org has agreed to reduce the FYC administration fee for live-streaming or taped events without an audience from $4,500 to $3,500. But if the event originates from the Wolf Theatre, the Academy’s production services and theater rental will cost $17,500, in addition to that administration fee.

But regardless of what happens to the FYC events, the question looming over the FYC season remains the same: How much all of this campaigning matters in the quest for Emmy gold.

“As Mike Bloomberg proved, just because you spend a lot of money, doesn’t mean you’re going to win,” quips one network publicity exec. “You actually have to be innovative and smart too about how you campaign.”