Emmys: A Time Before Screeners?! Publicists Reveal the Origins of Campaign Craziness (Guest Column)

Richard Licata and Maggie Schmidt, who worked at HBO when it was still a fledgling cable network, explain how Emmy screeners first appeared — at L.A.-area video stores.
Associated Press

Twenty-five years ago, if you drove down the Sunset Strip during the Emmy season, there wasn't a single "For Your Consideration" billboard, nor were there any wrapped buses cruising the streets or screening invitations and mailers waiting for you at your home or office. Back then, there were only a smattering of print (no digital) trade ads trumpeting TV’s bests — that is, for the few studios and networks that could afford them — and many contenders simply hoped that industry friends and colleagues would support them and their show.

What a difference a quarter-century makes. Today, with a landscape shouldering approximately 180 television networks and over 400 original programs, Emmy campaigning is big business. Here’s a look into how it all got started.

Back in 1989-90, Emmy campaigning consisted of limited trade ad support, some strategically placed feature stories and column items in the Los Angeles Times and the trades highlighting programs and actors who were thought to be of award caliber, and a lot of crossed fingers that these contenders (out of approximately 100 programs vying for recognition) would squeeze into one of the five nomination slots. 

The field of eligible primetime programs were dominated by the “big three” networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — with an occasional nod for FOX or PBS. While cable companies had been consistently producing some of the most expensive and provocative original programs on television, including comedy and music specials, made-for movies and miniseries, their programming wasn’t even eligible for Emmy consideration until 1988. And although during the next two years HBO managed to eek out wins for Robert Altman for directing Tanner ’88 and Abby Mann for writing Murderers Among Us: the Simon Wiesenthal Story, it was slim pickings compared to the haul for the traditional broadcast networks. HBO, Showtime, A&E, AMC, MTV, Discovery and others had to be satisfied with the ACE Awards, created in 1978 by the NCTA (National Cable Television Association), which honored the best cable programming of the year and was a less-than-exciting ceremony that went largely unseen by the majority of television viewers.

In March 1990, the two of us — later joined by our colleague Joe Earley and TV Academy alum Carolyn Oberman — decided it was time to hatch a plan to establish cable TV’s rightful place within the Emmy firmament. With the blessing (and budget approval) of visionary HBO chairman Michael Fuchs, we launched a campaign to capture the attention — and votes — of Television Academy members. While it’s difficult to believe now, back in 1990 HBO wasn’t nearly the juggernaut it is today, and it certainly didn't have the bandwidth in Los Angeles necessary to reach the folks who handed out the gold. In order to influence some 5,000 Academy members (there are over 18,000 today), we had to think outside the proverbial box.  And so the first challenge was how to make targeted programming available to Television Academy members who might not have access to HBO. 

One late afternoon, we came up with the notion of approaching the 20/20 video outlet in the Beverly Center and offer them exposure in trade ads in exchange for giving Academy voters the opportunity to take home eligible programming simply by presenting their membership card. They agreed to give it a try, and 25 copies of each of HBO's shows that were eligible that season were delivered to 20/20. Then we waited. A week later, the manager of the store called. He said, "All the tapes are checked out, got anymore?" And so they got more — and, realizing we were onto something, we expanded into their Studio City and Malibu stores. 

Quickly, we coaxed HBO’s scheduling team to re-broadcast all of those programs during the critical Emmy pre-balloting period. For the first time in television history, we borrowed a page from our movie friends and scheduled special "For Your Consideration" screenings and receptions through the Academy’s auspices. Bold creative ads touting the shows and the network brand were developed and placed with The Hollywood Reporter, Daily Variety and Emmy Magazine. And a company-wide campaign was launched for eligible executives to become voting members of the Television Academy. Every vote counted. 

That July, HBO went from eight nominations for the 1988-89 television season to 20 nominations for the 1989-90 season. The strategy worked. 

During the next two years, we struck a deal with the larger Wherehouse video and record chain and continued reaching out to Emmy voters in Malibu, the San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica. The results got better: In 1991, The Josephine Baker Story garnered 12 nominations and seven wins, with star Lynn Whitfield becoming the first female Emmy winner for a cable movie.

Then, as movie studios increasingly began sending out VHS "screeners" of their contenders to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, we had another thought. What if we had Michael Fuchs write a formal appeal to the president of the Television Academy requesting permission for HBO to send programming directly to the organization's membership? TV Academy czar John Leverance shepherded the request through the Academy board, and the desired provision was enacted — with the stipulation that all tapes would be routed through the Academy mailing house to ensure membership confidentially.

During the 1992-93 campaign year, the first box-set of seven VHS tapes went out to Academy members. On nomination day, HBO garnered 58 nominations, including a cable-first comedy series nod for The Larry Sanders Show, in addition to four out of five television movie nominations. At the Sept. 19 primetime ceremony, a startled television industry watched HBO collect 17 statuettes, more than any other network, including a history-making tie for outstanding television movie (for both Barbarians at the Gate and Stalin). Declared THR's banner headline the next morning: "HBO Is Simply the Best."

Cut to today. The race for Emmy recognition has never been more intense, especially with the global TV marketplace hungry for Emmy-anointed programming. Billboards trumpeting Emmy hopefuls are no longer limited to the Sunset Strip; they crop up on major thoroughfares across the city, from Silver Lake to Westwood.  There are screenings, panels and receptions every night from March through June, consumer and trade digital and print advertising and, of course, mailers with screeners.

Oh, those mailers — the TV Academy reported that this year over 50 went or will go out to its members, and Netflix volunteered that its four separate boxes weigh a collective 22 pounds. How will members possibly watch all of that programming? No matter. Networks, studios and agencies will collectively pour upwards of $50 million into Emmy campaigning, and the people who work for them all over town will put in countless hours of blood, sweat and tears, all with the hope of bringing home the shiny gold lady on Sept. 18.  

We've come a long way.

Licata, who served as vp media relations at HBO from 1980-1994, went on to work for FOX, Rogers & Cowan, Showtime, NBC and now Licata & Co. — The Awards Agency. His other Emmy-related innovations include campaign billboards, microsites with passcodes, bus wraps and mobile device access for shows. Schmidt, who was manager of publicity at HBO from 1986-1996, moved into feature film publicity and Oscar campaigns as head up publicity at Phoenix Pictures. She later became Warner Bros.' vp publicity and wrote several plays.

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