Emmys: Network Stunts Get Bigger in Bid to Catch Voters' Attention in Peak TV Era

The first screener of the season, for Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes, was mailed way back on Feb. 6, and the first "FYC" event, for Showtime's The Chi, was held for TV Academy members March 9.

That may sound like a strangely early start to Emmy campaigning, considering that nomination voting doesn't begin until June 11, final voting doesn't begin until Aug. 13 and the 70th Emmys won't happen until Sept. 17. But in the era of Peak TV — with more than 500 scripted series, plus an untold number of talk and reality shows, spread across hundreds of broadcast networks, cable and streaming services — it has never been harder to capture the attention of voters, of whom there are also more now than ever before (some 22,000). And since most will vote only for something they've actually seen (what a concept!), there is now an all-out war to try to register on their radar.

How did we get here? Until the 1990s, virtually all Emmy noms were split among the Big Three networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — with an occasional nom for Fox or PBS. Then came HBO, which needed subscribers, not commercials, to survive, and was therefore willing to spend real money in pursuit of Emmys — which, in turn, would attract more subscribers.

HBO introduced screeners in 1990, and once others began providing them (with the TV Academy taking its middleman cut), it became a competition to see who could offer the most lavish mailing. Then the TV Academy began renting space to content providers for FYC events, and it became a competition to see who could offer the most lavish post-panel reception. Efforts to be visible in the media expanded beyond local papers and ultimately to the internet, and now everyone fights to secure ads and coverage everywhere, and efforts to reach motorists expanded beyond the Sunset Strip to billboards, buses and bus stops along thoroughfares spanning from Silver Lake to Westwood.

Five years ago, roughly coinciding with the rise of another disrupter that lives or dies by subscriptions — Netflix — things got really cutthroat. Content providers began hiring the same consultants who captain Oscar campaigns. Yard signs and food trucks started popping up. And then, in 2017, "spaces" hosting screenings, panels and mixers (Amazon set up at the Hollywood Athletic Club and Netflix inside a 24,000-square-foot office building) were established to circumvent the TV Academy's restrictive FYC schedule.

This season, no stone is being left unturned. Actors are running the promotional marathon, billboards are everywhere, and the spaces are back — Amazon returned to the HAC, this time welcoming the public and offering "experiences" like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel-inspired hairstyling, while Netflix relocated to three soundstages at Raleigh Studios, hosting A-list talent for events including a conversation between David Letterman (My Next Guest Needs No Introduction) and Jerry Seinfeld (Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee). For similar gatherings, other content providers are increasingly employing studio lots (ABC's Black-ish did a table read and party at Disney) or shorter-term rentals (NBC's This Is Us hosted at Ace Hotel).

Some are seeking a comparable bang from season premieres (the second season of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale debuted at the TCL Chinese Theatre), live performances (John Legend played the piano for NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar) and an array of stunts: special appearances (the stars of FX's Baskets are set to man an Arby's counter); in-character ads on public benches (HBO's Barry) and business cards (Amazon's Maisel); and cheeky mailings (Fox's Family Guy bragged on the outside of a card, "We Predicted Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein, Open DVD to See Who's Next"; inside was a mirror).

Do any of these shenanigans actually impact the way voters vote? There's no question the efforts result in more voters being aware of and likely to check out certain shows — and again, that's half the battle, so they probably boost nomination tallies. But they also cost a fortune and, at the end of the day, TV Academy members vote in private and for what they like most, not for the content provider that showed them the best time. Last year, the two providers that hosted event spaces, Netflix and Amazon, garnered 91 and 16 noms, respectively, whereas one that did not pull out the FYC stops, Hulu, snagged 18 — and Hulu ultimately was the only streamer to win a series award. And HBO, now the old kid on the block, landed more noms (111) and wins (29) than any of them.

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