In the 1990s, when NBC was the home of “Must See TV” hits such as “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “ER,” the network was winning a slew of Emmys too.
TV producer Warren Littlefield, who ran NBC’s entertainment division during most of that successful period, recalls that the statuettes recognizing excellence in television didn’t often move the needle in the ratings.
“There were good bragging rights, and we tried to say to viewers and advertisers this is part of the patina that is our network, and I think we did a very good job of that,” he said. “Did it matter in terms of the audience that came to the show? Rarely.”
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But Littlefield sees the Emmy in a whole new light after going up onstage last year to accept one for outstanding miniseries for his FX series “Fargo.” Being recognized by his peers with the industry’s highest honor not only made him happy but it also put the series on the radar of viewers who were not familiar with it. With the options of streaming and video-on-demand, they could immediately find it and watch it.
“The world has changed, and today I think the Emmy is a far stronger beacon for audiences,” Littlefield said.
Littlefield’s view that the value of an Emmy is greater than ever before is shared across a rapidly changing TV industry. The television business has been reshaped by an explosion in the number of original series and the emergence of technologies that have enabled viewers to access programming in a number of ways. Although the Emmy has always been coveted as the TV award most recognized by the public because of the annual telecast of its ceremony on broadcast television (airing on Fox this Sunday), its role as a marketing tool has been magnified in the medium’s new, complicated universe.
“It is more pronounced now,” said Gary Newman, co-chairman of the Fox TV Group. “In excess of 400 scripted series will be launched or returned this year. In a market that crowded, an Emmy nomination or especially an Emmy win can be a powerful differentiator. Anything that you can do that gives you a stamp of quality I think is really important.”
The Emmy had a lot to do with the rise of original programming on cable networks, which could not even get their shows recognized by the Television Academy until 1988. Soon after the Emmy gates were opened, HBO dominated the made-for-TV movie category with high-profile projects. The premium cable network then used the awards to blaze its path as a destination for series programming with wins and nominations for “Sex and the City,” “Six Feet Under” and “The Sopranos.”
When Michael Chiklis won the Emmy for outstanding actor in a drama for “The Shield” in 2002, it put the show’s network, FX, on the map and showed that basic cable networks could position themselves in the marketplace with creatively adventurous programming.
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Emmys for “Broken Trail,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” helped AMC’s transformation from a channel that featured old theatrical films to a destination for quality series.
Although it took nearly two decades for the cable networks to level the field with their broadcast competitors in series programming, the Emmys have accelerated the acceptance of streaming services Netflix (34 nominations this year) and Amazon (12 nominations) as significant programming players only a few years after they entered the business.
HBO’s commitment to capturing Emmy gold has been annually signified in its lavish after-parties. This year, Amazon demonstrates its commitment with its first-time post-Emmy soiree at the Standard in downtown Los Angeles.
The ability of streaming services to get Emmy validation has quickly cleared the way for agents to bring talent to the new entities.
“Awards in general and the Emmy specifically legitimize the platforms and give comfort to artists to go to those platforms,” said Ted Miller, co-head of the television department at Creative Artists Agency. If “Amazon wins for comedy for ‘Transparent,’ it gives additional comedy writers the confidence that is a place to go that is real, that garners attention and can have an impact on the content and writing community.”
The Emmys have also become a valuable incentive to get actors who haven’t done television to ride the medium’s current creative wave. Michael Katcher, head of CAA’s TV talent group, said that when executives pitch projects to big-name stars, they often open by telling them they can win an Emmy.
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“It’s much easier to get the actors to cross over because the material is so good,” Katcher said. “To get someone to do [HBO’s] ‘True Detective’ and say, ‘You’re going to be nominated for Emmys,’ that’s a great thing.”
The direct financial effects of Emmy wins or nominations are harder to assess. Executives in the TV syndication business who sell shows made by the studios — none of whom wanted to be quoted — say they would much rather be out selling a series with a strong ratings track record than one with Emmy recognition. Series are usually sold to foreign markets long before Emmy nominations roll around.
But if an actor is in the middle of renegotiating a contract with a hit show, an Emmy nomination can work to their advantage. Film stars who are signing on for TV also are likely to get bonuses for Emmy nominations or wins, as are veteran writers.
Perhaps the one side of the TV business that has benefited least from Emmys’ clout in recent years has been the broadcast networks, which will have no contenders in the outstanding drama series category this year while Netflix has two. The award ceremony, which last year averaged 15.6 million viewers, has essentially been free publicity for industry interlopers on turf broadcast TV once had to itself.
Speaking to reporters this summer, Television Academy Chairman Bruce Rosenblum said he doesn’t see a day when there is a separate show or award for cable and streamed series. He added that the tougher competition has only made the Emmy a more coveted prize.
“When you do get to the stage and hold that trophy and you’re recognized by your peers, it’s even more meaningful,” he said. “It’s a positive.”