Scattered on the floor of Richard Licata's Showtime office in Westwood, Calif., are 25-30 DVD boxes, all containing episodes or full seasons of television series in the running for an Emmy Award.
“This is the funniest one,” says the executive VP of corporate communications, picking up a DVD submitted by RHI Entertainment, producer of ABC miniseries The Ten Commandments. The DVD container consists of two heavy stone-like engraved tablets. Inserted in the back of each faux stone is a DVD of the program.
That packaging is getting a lot of attention from other TV public-relations and marketing pros. “It's an engraved rock,” says one marketing executive. “You wonder how much money did they spend? Just the postage alone!”
This is the season for novel packaging, as show producers and networks angle to get their shows nominated for an Emmy; voting that chooses the nominees ends on June 20. This year, it seems everybody has an attention-grabbing gimmick: The DVD package from Fox's House, which is produced by NBC Universal Television Studios, comes with an IV transfusion bag filled with a blood-like liquid.
CBS Paramount Television pushed Everyone Hates Chris by sending out an entire season of DVDs packaged in a large milk carton like the kind sold in grade-school cafeterias.“It was the best-reviewed show of the year,” says John Wentworth, executive VP of communications for CBS Paramount Television. “We did it on the premise that this would allow voters to sit down and watch.” And from the early-bird-catches-the-worm school of thought, Wentworth notes, “We sent it in April rather than in May/June.”
Licata's pile of clever DVD mailers and Wentworth's send-early strategy are both features out of his own playbook. Licata got into the business of hunting for Emmy nominations before most other networks or publicists got serious about soliciting votes. He's a longtime veteran of Emmy campaigns and has done work previously for HBO, Fox, FX, USA and public-relations firm Rogers & Cowen.
Over a year ago, Licata surprised the Emmy world with seven Emmy nominations and two Emmy awards for Huff (one for supporting actress Blythe Danner). Many credit his Emmy marketing success to getting to academy members early—and comprehensively.
For Emmy-starved Showtime, he has been a rainmaker.
Licata blanketed the 13,000 Academy of Television Arts & Sciences members with a snazzy new DVD box and, more important, a full season's worth of Huff episodes, as well as other Showtime shows. And he sent his package in February—at least two to three months before anyone else.
“I wanted Academy members to be invested in Weeds or Huff if they didn't have Showtime,” says Licata. So successful was he with Huff last year, he stepped up his efforts. He started sending out Emmy materials in January—almost six months before Academy members start voting.
Now more and more TV producers and networks are making similar investments: sending out boxes early, offering more episodes, creating elaborate DVD packaging, and devising new and unusual marketing efforts. Even broadcast networks—which used to sit on the sidelines—are starting to spend marketing money for the Emmys.
Still, the heightened Emmy marketing rush isn't all good news.
“Everyone is blitzing Academy members with DVDs; it's increasingly become ineffective,” says Chris Ender, senior VP of communications for CBS.
And despite the trend to send DVDs early, many still show up in the late-April-to-May time period because many episodic TV shows aren't completed in time to send out episodes early. That spring bottleneck makes it difficult for Emmy voters to see everything. And that's where marketing shifts into overdrive.
For the most part, Emmy marketing has been a two-, perhaps three-step process: There's “The Box”'—a DVD with one, two or more episodes from multiple shows from a studio, producer, cable network or broadcast network. And there's all kinds of advertising, particularly in the Los Angeles press. Finally, there are the events where the series is screened and talent and producers woo voters.
The total price tag can be substantial. HBO, which has made the Emmys one of its main marketing efforts during the year (but won't talk about it), spends some $3 million on its annual campaign, say competing executives. That's more than any other network.
The results speak for themselves: hundreds of nominations and scores of awards, the most for any network in recent years.
For smaller networks and studios with only one episode or show that plausibly could win an Emmy, getting a show or series in front of a voter can cost as little as $200,000. Many producers and networks spend around $500,000. Major studios like Warner Bros. and Touchstone Television or networks such as Showtime will spend $1 million or more. For this Emmy campaign, NBC Universal will spend $2 million, looking to promote 13 shows from networks like NBC, USA and the Sci Fi Channel, according to executives who keep an eye on the competition.
Now they care
The biggest difference between Emmy promotion now and in the past is that, just a few years ago, networks didn't have much interest in paying to promote shows on their schedule.
“In the past, broadcast networks have said this is a studio job,” says one executive. But that attitude began to change when networks were allowed to own the shows they air. Today, spending to hype programming makes sense. It helps a series while it's on a network's schedule and presumably in its off-net afterlife, where the money is.
CBS has aggressively marketed series for its CSI franchise but, as Ender noted, avoided the DVD screeners, figuring that, unlike many other shows, CSI episodes are hard to miss. On the network and on cable in syndication, CSI has 20 million weekly viewers. A DVD screener isn't crucial.
Still, CBS wanted the show's Emmy hype to get to voters. “We wondered, 'How do you break through the clutter?'” says Phil Gonzales, VP of communications for CBS Entertainment.
For CSI shows, CBS is offering a special Website area for Academy members, offering all kinds of CSI information, plus streaming episodes from each show and clips featuring individual actors. “It's easier and different, in a user-friendly way,” says CBS' Ender. (Instead of the usual “For Your Consideration” tagline on marketing materials, CBS is going with a more CSI-ish: “For Your Investigation.”)
Other shows from CBS' Paramount Television and Showtime are also being screened online, besides being featured on regular DVD mailers.
CBS isn't the only one looking at digital platforms. In addition to sending out a DVD box, NBC Universal Television Studios is offering an iTunes Music Store card attached to an insert in Daily Variety directing Academy members to download an episode of The Office.
“I believe it's the first time anyone has done anything like this,” says Curt King, senior VP of publicity, marketing and corporate communications for NBC Universal Television Studios. “And it was appropriate because a lot of people credit the increased popularity of The Office to when we launched it on iTunes” last December.
Studio and network executives are constantly challenged to come up with new ideas. The glut of DVDs and print advertising creates a lot of conflicting noise—and increasingly little time to digest information.
“It's next to impossible to watch everything,” says Sharan Magnuson, senior VP of publicity at Warner Bros. Television. “You have to be competitive. You want your product to stand out.”
That flood of material persuaded Steve Melnick, senior VP of marketing at 20th Century Fox TV, to alter the tried-and-true screening event at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' North Hollywood location.
Instead of having the traditional event in late May, Fox sponsored a seminar focusing on real-life terrorism, titled: “24 and the War on Terror: Can Truth Learn From Fiction?” Before the discussion, Fox scheduled a screening of the show.
“It was unbelievably successful,” Melnick says. “We got 1,000 people to come. You want to be where your competition is. But you also want to be where they are not.” The seminar even created free advertising: It was picked up on C-SPAN.
Although big studios and networks specifically target TV programs, cable networks typically used the Emmys as one element of their overall cable branding marketing efforts.
Besides HBO and Showtime, regular cable Emmy marketers are FX, A&E, USA, Lifetime, and, more recently, Sci Fi Channel, Bravo and TNT.
TNT's big push
This year, TNT is making perhaps its biggest Emmy push for two shows: Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Into the West and the Warner Bros.-produced drama series The Closer, starring Kyra Sedgwick. Warner Bros. is contributing to the Closer campaign.
“We don't get a Spielberg every year,” says Steve Koonin, executive VP/COO for TNT and sister network TBS. “When I get a chance to promote a Spielberg, I'm going to use to it.”
Emmys help advertising-supported cable networks cut through the basic- cable clutter. In 2002, basic-cable networks broke new ground when Michael Chiklis earned an Emmy for outstanding lead actor in a drama series for FX's The Shield, beating out major-network drama talent in the category. This helped establish FX's brand.
This year, FX pushed its programs in a 32-page Emmy promotional booklet polybagged in trade publications, plus a 56-page booklet in Emmy Magazine.
Providing more info
“It gives us the ability to offer up more information,” says John Solberg, senior VP of public relations for FX. “Booklets in polybags have been done before for film but not for TV.”
This year, Sci Fi Channel's major campaign revolves around Battlestar Galactica, which, slyly, is being promoted by barely being mentioned: In Variety, the network took out a front cover ad, with a DVD insert that didn't name the show.
Likewise, on banner ads on TV-centric Websites, Sci Fi never mentions the show by name.
Instead, the ads are made up of headshots of the show's stars, Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, on a black background with critics' quotes: “…The #1 Television Show of 2005”—Time magazine; “One of the best shows on TV”—Rolling Stone; “… one of the best shows on television…”—New York Times; “…among the best dramas on TV, period”—TV Guide; “… the best show on television”—Newsday.
There's method behind Sci Fi's off-kilter campaign. “As soon as you tell me it's a Sci Fi show, a red flag goes up,” says Dave Howe, executive VP/general manager of Sci Fi Channel. “As soon as you tell me the name is Battlestar Galactica, a red flag goes up. As soon as you tell me the show comes from the same cheesy '70s network program, a red flag goes up.”
Instead, Howe believes that the plethora of strong positive reviews from critics tell the real story.
In its DVD box, Sci Fi re-creates the same no-name approach—almost. Buried deep in its informational booklet—some 10 pages in—the show's name is finally revealed. But that isn't all. “We don't even have the name on the DVDs,” he says.
Sci Fi touts Battlestar as a high-end quality drama in the vein of ABC's Lost or Fox's 24. “We are incredibly proud of it,” says Howe. “It kind of put us on the map.”
Good marketing ideas aren't always completely original. In a much smaller effort, FX's Solberg says he did some similar DVD- box marketing—putting just critics' quotes, no titles of shows on some early-release DVDs of The Shield and Rescue Me.
The “Emmy Award-winning” tag for an actor, show or producer still carries a lot of weight, even though the TV-award show itself has slipped in ratings in recent years.
Increasingly for a program/studio owner, there is still value in the Emmy because of aftermarket sales. “For the DVD business, there is an actual benefit for the studio because of its ability to promote and use an 'Emmy' sticker,” says Fox's Melnick.
That was evident for Fox with Arrested Development in 2004, where it rang up impressive DVD sales after it won the Emmy for best sitcom.
“The Emmy is a great barometer,” says Turner's Koonin. “It's the evidence of quality. We believe for us to spend the extra money on the Emmys is a true natural marketing extension of what we do every day.”
Cable networks have been doing this for years—something marketing executives say all broadcast networks should do as competition grows from cable, the Internet and other digital platforms.
DVD boxes come and go, but executives say that, ultimately, the TV shows have to deliver. All the marketing and promotion in the world won't help a mediocre show.
“The challenge is to be clever and compelling without being obnoxious,” says Fox's Melnick. “Ultimately, you want people to understand and embrace a show's merits, rather than leave them obsessing over how much money was spent on the packaging bells and whistles—which at times have almost literally been bells and whistles.”