When television professionals learn today who among them has been nominated for TV's highest honor, they'll also come to know a thing or two about the marketing effectiveness of specially packaged doorbells and rubber snakes jumping out of cans.
Taking a cue from their flashier brethren in the movie industry who each year wage multimillion-dollar Oscar quests, cable networks and production companies are campaigning more aggressively and creatively for this town's second most prestigious statuette: the Emmy.
Blame it on shaven-headed, raspy-voiced Michael Chiklis.
Just as upstart Miramax's savvy campaign earned "Shakespeare in Love" a surprise win over the favored "Saving Private Ryan" for best picture of 1998, the Emmy race was upended last year when Chiklis, star of FX's "The Shield," came out of nowhere to take the award for lead actor in a drama.
For the first time, an actor from a basic cable network took the top dramatic acting prize, and suddenly people realized everyone had a shot at one of the major awards.
That feeling was reinforced when "The Shield," Chiklis and Tony Shalhoub of USA Network's "Monk" all hauled in major prizes at the Golden Globe awards a few months later. Cable executives concluded: Goodbye to watching from the sidelines; hello to Emmy marketing campaigns.
Of course, nothing in the TV awards quest approaches the magnitude of the Oscar spend-a-thon, which has gotten so over the top that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has imposed new, harsher penalties for those who violate its rules. But then while a best picture Academy Award can substantially boost a film's bottom line — much of "Chicago's" nearly $170-million domestic gross can be attributed to its best picture Oscar in March — the reward from an Emmy is less tangible. It's more a matter of prestige and ego when it comes to the TV awards.
Still, ego counts for plenty in Hollywood. And so, the aggressive campaign waged on Chiklis' behalf, complete with a DVD packed in a box that lighted up when it opened, was widely emulated during the Emmy nominations season, which concluded with today's 5:40 a.m. announcement of the nominees. As Peter Ligouri, president of FX Networks, put it: "Michael's win gave hope."
USA Networks President Doug Herzog, whose company has again mounted a noticeable campaign for "Monk," agreed. "For so long, cable programming has been the sorry second sister to the networks .... We feel very strongly about the work that we're doing, and we're vying for the attention just like the networks are doing. You want to wave the flag and say, 'We've got something here that's just as good as anything that's on television.' "
The television community learned its lesson. Simply sending out tapes or DVDs of TV episodes with just a "for your consideration" plea is not enough to set projects apart from the hundreds of other episodes and movies the 11,500 members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences receive.
While the film studios may spend millions of dollars on their Oscar efforts on a single title, most Emmy campaigns for particular shows are budgeted from $150,000 to $200,000, insiders said. A studio such as Miramax or DreamWorks could spend as much as $8 million just on ads in newspapers like The Times, as well as the entertainment trade papers.
Although there are a daunting 91 Emmy categories, almost all of the budgets spent in lobbying academy members are concentrated on the major divisions, such as outstanding series, actor and actress. To boost those efforts, cable networks and TV production companies make use of elaborate, custom-designed packages, billboards, lighted signposts and radio station sponsorships.
Take TNT's campaign for "Door to Door," an original movie inspired by the true story of Bill Porter, an Oregon salesman with cerebral palsy. TNT put together a custom package that contains a doorbell that rings when the box is opened. The network also put a huge billboard on Sunset Boulevard featuring the film and its star and co-writer, William H. Macy, whose performance has been mentioned in several circles as a favorite to be nominated. "Door to Door" also underwrote programs on public radio station KCRW-FM (89.9).
Steve Koonin, executive vice president of TNT, said, "We put together a very concentrated campaign that also spoke to our promise and slogan that we know drama. We think this was the best drama on TV."
"The campaigning for Emmy nominations absolutely got more intense this year," said Richard Licata, executive vice president of television for Rogers & Cowan, a public relations firm that has put together several Emmy campaigns this year. Licata got credit for developing the FX Emmy "lights on" campaign that was considered key in calling attention to Chiklis' critically acclaimed but little-seen performance. This year, Licata and partner Borris Jonah were involved in half a dozen Emmy campaigns.
"Pay TV networks such as HBO have always been very aggressive, but basic cable networks are really paying more attention than they ever have in calling attention to terrific original projects," he said.
Among the mailers academy members received recently was a white plastic orb from the Sci-Fi Channel that opened up to reveal the channel's highly touted "Steven Spielberg's 'Taken' " and "Children of Dune." A package from Fox's "MAD TV" contained a colorful can that produced a springing snake when opened. A package from the NBC unscripted series "Meet My Folks" contained not only episodes but a toy "lie detector."
Dick Wolf, creator of "Law & Order" and its spinoff series, "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," has been heavily involved in the campaign for the shows, which includes an onslaught of ads in the Hollywood trades. Wolf is hoping to score a record 12th consecutive outstanding drama series nomination for "Law & Order." The campaign was given extra juice when Universal Television, producers of "Law & Order," distributed a package to journalists in May celebrating the drama's 300th episode. The package contained the episodes that scored the previous Emmy nominations.
Like "Door to Door," "Law & Order" also sponsored programming on KCRW, the Santa Monica NPR outlet that has long played a prominent role in Oscar races. Underwriting for public radio requires an on-air acknowledgment by the station, which can be used to market a film.
"We've long been considered by the movie studios to be a valuable asset for Oscar campaigns," said Jacki Weber, development director for KCRW. "We've been called the radio station for the entertainment industry, and [there will] be a myriad of announcements of underwriting by studios who want their movies mentioned on the air. This year we really got a push for Emmy nominees."
She declined to specify the fee for an on-air mention, "but it allows a studio to identify their goods and services in a noncommercial way."
All of these efforts notwithstanding, the new aggressiveness by the TV industry has fallen far short of the frenzied Oscar campaigns that have prompted the motion picture academy to rein in some of the more visible practices. The academy had already prohibited parties and receptions specifically aimed at wooing Oscar voters, and years ago banned the elaborate DVD packages that were used to solicit this year's Emmy nominations. Earlier this month, it issued new restrictions on newspaper ads containing testimonials and announced harsher penalties for violators that includes the possibility of expulsion from the academy.
For its part, the TV community says the onslaught seems more creative than offensive.
"With the Emmy drive, it's very dignified and civilized," Licata said. "With the Oscars, there's much more of a financial windfall; more money at stake than there is with an Emmy. So the TV industry can afford to be kinder and gentler."
Although the amount of campaigning has only expanded a bit from last year, according to John Leverence, the television academy's vice president of awards, "there is this intense art direction that is being used, a new level of ad agency creativity."
And with this morning's announcement bringing the nominations season to a close, efforts now turn to winning the awards, which will be handed out Sept. 21 at the Shrine Auditorium. The campaigning will begin anew, starting today, although they will be more closely monitored by the television academy.
While Emmy campaigns are becoming more intense, FX's Ligouri said the most important factor in getting an Emmy should not be overlooked.
"Yes, the marketing helped," Ligouri said about Chiklis' success at last year's Emmys. "But given Michael's dark-horse status, it was his work that spoke for itself. All we did was bring focus to his tour de force performance. He was the 'go.' "