From ‘Narcos’ to ‘O.J.,’ Networks Await Vote on Emmy Campaigns

  • Media companies spend more than $60 million pursuing awards
  • Television academy hands out top industry honors Sunday night

Los Angeles residents cruising the famed Sunset Strip this summer confronted giant images of drug lord Pablo Escobar, running back O.J. Simpson and cult apostate Kimmy Schmidt, all on billboards bearing the same message: For Your Consideration.

The ads are pleas for Emmy Awards, the top prize in TV. And they get their verdicts Sunday in a nationally broadcast ceremony on Walt Disney Co.’s ABC.

A scene from the Pablo Escobar drama "Narcos."

Source: Netflix Inc.

In a town once ruled by film, the Emmy has become more important for business than the Oscar. Major media companies -- including those with movie studios -- earn the lion’s share of their profit from television, and their Emmy campaigns echo beyond Hollywood. With streaming companies like Netflix Inc. and Inc. spurring big increases in TV production -- the industry churned out 419 shows last year -- the race for an Emmy has taken on Herculean intensity.

Emmy campaigns and awards have become a way for networks to promote their shows worldwide and gain credibility at home. TV networks, including newer online entrants like Netflix and Amazon, spent about $60 million to $80 million in total on campaigns this year, people familiar with the costs say. An elaborate DVD mailer to academy members can cost $400,000 or more, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing specific expenses.

“Emmys are a simple rubric for what’s best,” said John Landgraf, chief executive officer of FX Networks, which grabbed 56 nominations this year, including 22 for “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” “They are the only thing that seems to resonate with the general population.”

FX surprised Hollywood in 2002 when Michael Chiklis won an Emmy for his performance on “The Shield,’’ one of the gritty dramas that define the network. This year the 21st Century Fox Inc. outlet ranked second in nominations, trailing only Time Warner Inc.’s HBO, thanks to the Simpson miniseries and “Fargo,” inspired by the Oscar-nominated film.

HBO, a perennial leader, uses nominations to cement its image as the destination for premium programming, a perception that’s also attracted viewers. Domestic subscribers have risen by over 50 percent to about 50 million since 1996, when HBO was preparing to release its first hour-long drama “Oz.” Profit has jumped more than fivefold to $1.9 billion last year.

“One of HBO’s most important business strategies was to have the most Emmy nominations each year,” Landgraf said.

The awards also lure talent. HBO has convinced many of the film industry’s biggest stars to work in TV, from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in “True Detective’’ to director Martin Scorsese on “Boardwalk Empire.’’

Rich Licata, an independent publicist, launched what he says was the first Emmy campaign while at HBO in the early 1990s. Up to that time, three broadcast networks -- CBS, NBC and ABC -- had dominated the awards and HBO was eager for recognition.

Licata went to a local video store and asked the clerk to keep screener tapes behind the counter for members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the group that bestows the Emmys. The plan was to advertise the availability of the tapes to get the voters to watch. Two weeks later, the store asked for more because academy members had snatched up all the tapes.

“The next year I went to Blockbuster,” Licata said.

Emmy campaigns today run almost year-round. Executives huddle in the winter to map out promotions that last until August. Networks must decide which shows will be contenders, hire consultants, design DVD mailers and billboards, and arrange screenings. More than just awards are at stake.

“Globally, when networks and production companies are selling shows, it’s valuable cachet to say it’s Emmy-nominated or an Emmy winner,” Licata said.

Boon to Business

The campaigns are a boon to many businesses. As the sole owner of the list of some 20,000 members, the TV Academy takes a cut of almost everything. Trade publications benefit from ad dollars, and consultants can earn $3,000 to $30,000 a month. By June, TV academy members have enough free DVDs to fill a U-Haul van.

No company has pursued Emmys with more gusto recently than Netflix, which placed third in nominations this year with 54, including a best-comedy nod for “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” about a woman rescued from a doomsday cult. The company, which also aired the Escobar drama “Narcos,” sent out five different packages with DVDs, an amusing reminder that the streaming company started out by mailing discs.

Results are tough to quantify. Netflix has earned more nominations each year, but it’s also been making more shows and earning acclaim independently. It still hasn’t won an Emmy for best drama or comedy. The company declined to comment.

Meanwhile, HBO has led the nominations and awards for the better part of the last decade, most recently with “Game of Thrones.” The network declined to comment for this story.

Not everyone has the money or inclination for big campaigns. New Form Digital, co-founded by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, used blog postings, e-mail outreach and an online screening room to promote “Oscar’s Hotel for Fantastical Creatures.” A Snapchat campaign targeted the children and assistants of academy voters who likely hadn’t seen the shows. The company didn’t send any mailers -- and didn’t get any nominations.

Hulu LLC staged five events for academy members, one a screening of “Casual” at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery where Rudolph Valentino is buried. It sent out two mailers. The reward? The streaming service’s first two Emmy nominations.

“Over the years an Emmy coronation has helped define fledging networks, and more recently the streaming services," Licata said. “The Emmy isn’t just a statuette; your stature takes on a golden hue in the business.”

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