Cable Networks Package Their Shows to Win

Author:
Publish date:

The 18 Emmy nominations that Showtime received this year were like an 18 karat gold diamond ring — the most the network had ever received and a tribute to the hard work of not only the network’s programming department and all the talent they enlisted, but of a hefty marketing campaign that began to gel just after the new year.

Elegant leather-bound boxes were shipped to Emmy voters featuring a booklet titled The New Face of Showtime, with eight VHS tapes inside, including the miniseries, The Reagans, and the movie The Lion in Winter, for which the premium channel received the bulk of its nominations.

'IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY’

But when Showtime’s executives arrived at Morton’s, The Steakhouse in West Hollywood for the network’s first-ever Emmys gala post-awards party, they were empty-handed. “Of course it’s disappointing when you don’t win,” says Richard Licata, executive vice president of entertainment public relations for Showtime Networks Inc. as he stood at the edge of the gold carpet that the network’s celebrity guests were about to walk down “But it’s not always about the winning; it’s about the journey there.”

“Our target was to get nominations this year,” Licata adds. “The Emmy campaign is more of a branding exercise as well as a bid to get nominations, and that, coupled with all the other programming and publicity that we’re doing and events like tonight, was unprecedented in Showtime’s history. It makes us more like a force in television.”

An increasing number of cable networks are reaching for that goal. USA Network, Sci Fi Channel, A&E Network, FX, Comedy Central and others have stepped up their Emmy efforts in recent years, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on any given series, movie, miniseries or special-event program to get the attention of academy voters.

“Over the past couple of years, we’ve become truly more competitive in terms of our programming,” says Bonnie Hammer, president of USA and Sci Fi. “We feel we can go toe-to-toe with both the [broadcast] networks and HBO. We’ve kind of become a bit more savvy in how we package and what we do.”

Some networks still opt for placing ads in trade magazines and participating in Academy of Television Arts & Sciences screening events in Los Angeles and New York. And they occasionally showcase productions at film festivals. But the bulk of the marketing is done through elaborately packaged programming efforts.

'TAKEN’ WITH PACKAGING

That was certainly the tactic Sci Fi took last year with the Steven Spielberg-directed miniseries Taken. It tried to wow the press and academy members by housing the tapes inside a globe. The packaging itself was the subject of “many people’s articles, including USA Today and a couple of the trades,” recalls Hammer. Taken won two Emmys, including best miniseries. “Obviously what was inside it, the episodes of Taken, delivered on the promise,” she adds.

Not every network takes the bells-and-whistles packaging approach. The cable network with the most Emmy awards this year, HBO, has stuck to the philosophy that programming should make its own noise. Still, HBO has become particularly savvy about scheduling its important shows during May sweeps, a time when their miniseries and movies can get the most exposure just before the June 1 Emmy deadline. And others have followed its lead.

“We had Ike: Countdown to D-Day, air on the very last day of eligibility this year, on Memorial Day,” says David Craig, director of drama programming at A&E. “Five years ago we had Dash and Lily air on May 31. And both of those films were highly recognized by the academy. So we don’t think it’s a coincidence.”

After the nominations, continuing the momentum is important, according to Comedy Central executive vice president of corporate communications Tony Fox. Re-airing programming and press attention can increase awareness.

“Dave Chappelle was everywhere this spring with his show,” says Fox. “The ratings were through the roof. And, creatively, the stuff he was doing on his show was getting unbelievable buzz throughout the pop-culture landscape. When a show is that hot, it’s almost impossible for academy members to ignore it.”

Chappelle’s Show lost its head-to-head competition with The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, also on Comedy Central. The Daily Show benefited from the hype of its Indecision 2004 specials on the Democratic and Republican national conventions, which, despite coming after the Emmy deadline, galvanized young viewers and kept the show in the forefront of Emmy voters’ minds.

“Thankfully, [ATAS] has made a concerted effort to get more young people to become a part of the academy,” says Fox, “and that has enabled more cutting-edge shows to be recognized than ever before.”

With the academy now allowing voters to screen tapes at home, it has made easier for edgier fare to get noticed. Under the old judging system, when voters screened tapes in hotel rooms, more sympathetic tapes tended to win. In fact, James Galdolfini won his first Emmy in 2000 for an episode of The Sopranos that showed a vulnerable Tony Soprano crying in front of Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco).

But that kind and compassionate fare is no longer as important. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the following year, Gandolfini took home his next Emmy for a disturbingly violent episode.

“The dramatic case of Gandolfini winning for beating his mistress — that episode would have never won an Emmy under the old system because it was so harsh. But it was proof that you no longer have to be huggable to win under the new system,” says Tom O’Neil, author of The Emmys: The Ultimate, Unofficial Guide to the Battle of TV’s Best Shows and Greatest Stars and host of the entertainment-awards Web site, goldderby.com.

TWO FOR CARTOON

Of course, not everyone has to beat Emmy voters over the head to get attention. The Cartoon Network received three animation nods — and won two awards — for its Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars. Samurai Jack’s win for animated programming less than one hour upset Fox’s The Simpsons, which has had a stranglehold on the category, winning six of the last nine awards.

Cartoon hardly did more than send tapes out to academy members. “The animation community is relatively small, [and] many of the shows that are under consideration for Emmys from Cartoon Network are very well known in the community,” says Jim Samples, executive vice president and general manager of the service.

But the network may not be use such a passive approach in the future. “We want to raise animation to the level of general entertainment,” Samples says. “So over time, I do expect that [campaigning] will be very important to us.”

Related