When the producers of "Modern Family" claimed in a full-page Variety ad two years ago that curvaceous star Sofia Vergara would run naked down Sunset Boulevard if the ABC sitcom won the Emmy (it did, and she didn't), it may have seemed as if award campaigning had reached its peak.
But the jostling to nab television's top award has only intensified since then. The reason? More new channels struggling to make a name for themselves, bringing with them a greater number of competing programs than ever before.
"It's like a nuclear arms race in which all of us are trying to lure the best possible talent to our channels, and one way to do that is to support the talent we have by campaigning for Emmys," says FX Network President John Landgraf, who's met with mixed results in recent campaigns for such critically acclaimed shows on his channel as "Louie," "Justified" and "Sons of Anarchy."
"Is there more competition? Oh, God, yeah!" says Richard Licata, head of publicity for NBC, citing contenders new to scripted programming such as the Sundance Channel, History, Netflix and the A&E Network. Start-ups can pour resources into promoting a single quality contender or two — as happened last year when History's first-ever miniseries, "Hatfields & McCoys," landed 16 Emmy nominations and five awards.
Licata should know: He pioneered the modern Emmy campaign 20 years ago, when it was a novel idea to reach out to television voters. To compare the playing field now and then: In 1992, 29 shows were submitted for outstanding drama series. In 2002, that number had jumped to 57. Last year, in 2012, a whopping 87 shows competed for a nomination in the top drama race. Efforts to woo the 15,000-plus members of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences now start as early as February and March for awards bestowed in September, and typical campaigns for a series can cost from $150,000 to $500,000.
An added spur to competition may be the plethora of pay-to-view options for television audiences, such as DVD sales, downloads and subscription channels. During his previous tenure at Showtime, says Licata, the subscriber base went from 12 million to 20 million when programs such as "Weeds," "Nurse Jackie," "Dexter" and "The Tudors" began winning Emmy awards and nominations. "I can't say that escalation was driven solely by awards, but they did play a significant role," says Licata. "And there's no question that the awareness awards generate can drive tune-in and increase the value of programs in ancillary markets like foreign sales."
More impressive still is that the financial upside for an Emmy win registers even more significantly for the talent. "For the writer, the producer, the actor, the director — an Emmy win makes them more valuable and employable for some period into the future," says Landgraf. A win doesn't always translate into higher ratings for the show itself, though. FX's "Louie," the innovative comedy for which creator Louis C.K. won the Emmy for writing, for example, didn't receive a viewership bump for its season finale, which followed the awards ceremony by mere days. In such a case, says Landgraf: "Is there an economic benefit to the studio that owns the negative? I'd have to say no. But it's good for FX in that it keeps us in the conversation along with Showtime, HBO and AMC as the stratosphere of quality television these days, and that's part of our brand identity."
These days, the "For your consideration," or FYC campaign, grows ever more innovative, from the tried-and-true DVD mailer to stunts like double-decker buses wrapped in advertising and free handouts like water bottles and doggie treats that tout award contenders. "These campaigns are more layered and strategic than before, and our clientele is more diverse — we're being approached by new content providers that were never on the map in the past," says Lori Posner, founder of ad agency Yes Design Group, which has specialized in FYC campaigns for more than a decade.
At History, several meetings to discuss this year's Emmy strategy took place as early as March, says Dirk Hoogstra, senior vice president of programming. "For 'Hatfields & McCoys,' we had a very deliberate strategy for winning, very well thought-out from public relations to the marketing side, and that will grow as we develop more scripted originals," he said, citing "Vikings" and "The Bible" as the next to be touted. Still, he's careful not to put the cart before the horse.
"The accolades certainly helped us to attract talent for our new projects. But we don't sit down and say, 'How can we win awards?' We say, 'Is this the best story and is this the director who can make it come alive?' Awards are something that happens after, if we've done all of that right."
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