Awards pros counsel networks and studios on high-stakes awards strategies.
Driving down Sunset Boulevard last spring, veteran awards strategist Richard Licata noticed that virtually every billboard on the world-famous Strip touted the merits of one show or another for Emmy consideration.
There are stunts, too — like IFC's campaign for its hipster comedy Portlandia, which involved tacking tongue-in-cheek flyers to telephone poles.
"USA, HBO, FX — you name it — they were all doing billboards," he recounts. "And of course you're also seeing [FYC advertising] on buses, banners, even in bathrooms. In certain upscale restaurants around town, there are marquees over the urinal in the men's room, and you can put a poster in there: 'For your consideration.' Talk about a captive audience."
Licata grasps the industry changes perhaps better than anyone. He pioneered the modern Emmy campaign as a publicity executive at Fox in the early 1990s, when the drama series submitted to the Television Academy competition numbered 29. Last year, they reached 143. And that marked a substantial increase over the 2014 total of 108.
"With the proliferation of quality content, it's become a bigger challenge to get a show considered by the voters," says Rick Markovitz of Weissman/Markovitz Communications, whose client roster includes FX, Hulu, National Geographic, BET and the Food Network.
The crowded field has affected campaigns in a number of ways, including accelerating their starts. A few years ago it was considered proactive to begin in March (first-round Emmy voting takes place in June and the second round in July, with the awards usually bestowed in September). Now, consultants encourage clients to get their game on at New Year's — or even sooner.
"Networks and studios should begin meeting with package designers in December, and serious campaign planning should start in January," says Lindajo Loftus, head of the Loftus Company. This should include "looking at what you can build around the TCA" — the semi-annual gathering of TV journalists, whose winter meeting is held in January — "that will help you promote come Emmy time.
Also, you need to be looking at advertising budgets and researching when the talent will be in town for events. The day after the Oscars, you give journalists a couple of hours to relax and then you get your pitches out."
Echoes Markovitz: "We started in January this year with a couple of our clients — there's so much lead time required."
Licata — who recently reentered the fray with his own firm, Licata & Company: The Awards Agency, after amassing two decades of experience at NBC, Showtime, HBO, Fox and Rogers & Cowan — notes that current digital techniques include embedding video of an award-worthy scene into online advertising and using social media to "geo-target" a voter demographic, such as younger Academy members.
For Markovitz, "the biggest challenge now is that we're in a transition between DVDs and streaming." The well-established DVD campaigns can be costly, he concedes, but not everybody is into the streaming mode yet, so you have to cover your bases."
While some campaigning is handled by year-round publicists, awards specialists take on a wide range of tasks, from ad buys to editorial placement, screener mailings and social media — as well as planning panels and receptions.
"Emmy campaigning requires as much showmanship as a consumer launch," Markovitz says. "If you can reach a voter in an unexpected way, that's good campaigning."
Loftus recalls Netflix's planting of political-style yard signs at homes in voter-centric areas for the first season of House of Cards. Indeed, there are parallels between political and awards campaigns, but Markovitz says they're limited. "In our business, the rules prevent polling — we can't directly address voters. People won't talk about it anyway."
Many voters will admit, however, that they enjoy the perks of awards season, including the many events. But when ballots are cast, how much influence do the campaigns really have?
A show needs to speak for itself," Markovitz says. "All we're doing is helping people find it, and creating a little more importance around it."
For Loftus, formerly a vice-president at Weissman/Markovitz, it means "using every resource to raise the awareness of shows in the minds of voters, There's so much television now — how do I get the shows I'm working with in front of you? By effective campaigning."
Licata sees his role as promoting informed voting. "I'm leery of thinking I can influence voters to do a certain thing," he says. "That would be insulting to the members of the Academy. But you can bring them information. You want them to be aware of what went into making the show, and they can weigh that against other shows they may want to vote for,
"With few exceptions, the cream always manages to rise to the top," he adds. "Most of the shows that get nominated and win deserve it. There's something very democratic about the process."