'Empire' to Throw Circus to Court Emmy Voters

Courtesy of FX Networks
The cast of 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' at the finale premiere.

As part of a frenzy in the golden age of television to rise above the crowd, campaigns have reached full-scale for-your-consideration warfare: "Nobody can get away with the standard screening and a panel now. There's too much competition."

An Access Hollywood producer butchered the second verse of "Genie in a Bottle" during an NBC-hosted karaoke "happy hour" as Christina Aguilera surprised him onstage to salvage the hook. It was one of several surreal moments, even by entertainment press standards, during an April 21 mixer for The Voice to drum up coverage during the increasingly chaotic Emmy campaign season.

Yes, Peak TV is prompting full-scale for-your-consideration warfare as the 2016 Emmy cycle takes schmoozing to near-Oscars levels ahead of the June 13 start of nominations voting. That means celebrity sing-alongs, hot-ticket cast reunions (FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story) and even a small circus on a studio lot (Fox's Empire). "Nobody can get away with the standard screening and a panel now," says one strategist. "There's too much competition."

Motivations go beyond just the need to stand out in a hypercompetitive field. The shift partially is birthed by necessity. Past years have seen networks and studios rely heavily on the Television Academy's North Hollywood headquarters to play host to episode encores and Q&A sessions with talent. But the facility's theater was razed in 2014 as part of an eight-figure transition to the 30,000-square-foot Saban Media Center, scattering events and creating a free-for-all mentality. "It's more competitive than ever," says Shannon Ryan, marketing and communications executive vp at Fox TV Group. "So we try to be creative." Among the network's Emmy events are a planned May 20 Empire Fest and a performance-heavy party to plug Grease Live! Even the conventional post-screening panels are more tailored than in years past, with Showtime dissecting the presidential race with producers of political doc series The Circus at New York's heady 92nd Street Y and Food Network star Guy Fieri selling himself at a talk inside Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre.

Many Oscar "strategists" now quickly transition to Emmy work even before the grandstands outside the Dolby Theatre are taken down. And while Oscar campaigns have become highly regulated in recent years, the TV Academy requires only a limit on one "official" academy event in New York and L.A. All other stunts and nonsanctioned goings-on are OK and considered key to introducing the 20,000-plus voting members to a program. "You want your event to stand out and attract those who might not have initially sampled the show," says WGN America senior vp Rita Cooper Lee, who anchored an April 17 Beverly Hilton brunch for the drama Underground with a performance by a full gospel choir. "Peak TV is now peak FYC."

This story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.