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Here’s Why Networks Are Desperate to Break Into The Emmy Club — And What It Takes

For National Geographic, it was "Genius." At VH1, "RuPaul's Drag Race" changed everything. A look at how year's networks on the rise landed some big Emmy love.

Johnny Flynn and Geoffrey Rush, "Genius"

Johnny Flynn and Geoffrey Rush, “Genius”

National Geographic/DusanMartincek

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For networks hungry to break into the Emmy race, it sometimes takes just one show.

FX did it in 2002 with cop classic “The Shield,” AMC made it in 2007 with the Western miniseries “Broken Trail” and Netflix swung the door open for streaming services in 2013 with the political drama “House of Cards.” From there, those networks became Emmy titans.

“At a time when basic cable wasn’t considered to be of that quality, it was extremely gratifying,” “The Shield” creator Shawn Ryan said of the show’s big first-season nominations (and win– for star Michael Chiklis) 15 years ago. “Not knowing if anyone would take anything on FX seriously, to get that kind of validation was a career-making memory.”

This year, several more networks are looking to make a splash on Emmy night, entering the competition in a big way with big, signature programs that have captured the attention of Television Academy voters.

“Every platform needs that one show to launch it,” said “Genius” executive producer Brian Grazer, whose National Geographic series earned 10 nominations. “You just need one important show that has critical and popular success, which gives it the launch pad and credibility for people to take it seriously.”

Emmys don’t mean everything to everyone, and broadcast network executives are learning to live with the fact that their mainstream fare is mostly not in the awards game anymore.

“We would love to be nominated and have Emmys, but we also if push came to shove and we had to make a choice, we will take ad revenue and ratings over Emmys any day,” CBS programming senior vice president Thom Sherman said. “But why can’t we try to have both? We’d love to.”

But CBS doesn’t need the validation that comes from an Emmy win. Networks looking to rebrand or establish themselves do. For National Geographic, it became an important part of CEO Courteney Monroe’s strategy to become a home for premium scripted and documentary fare. Overall, the network landed 15 nominations, up from nine last year.

“It’s a validation to our team that we’re on to something and that we can play with the big boys,” she said.

Monroe added that it also helps justify the channel’s new strategy of airing shows that offer “premium storytelling.” The goal: driving buzz and word of mouth, and ultimately industry recognition.

“That matters not just for viewers, but that matters to advertisers, it matters for our distributors,” she said. “So these things become business drivers. Because not only does it raise our profile among viewers, advertisers and distributors but it raises your profile among A-list talent, who then want to bring their best projects to you because they realize you can get awards attention at Nat Geo. You dont have to just go to Netflix and HBO and FX.”

It was a tough year for many broadcast and cable networks, as titans HBO and Netflix grew their tallies extensively, at the expense of other veterans, like AMC, Comedy Central, History and Showtime, all of which saw tally dips.

But besides Nat Geo, other networks experiencing sizable Emmy growth this year include ESPN, which went from zero to seven thanks to documentary series “O.J. Made in America”; Hulu, which got on the board (18 noms, from two last year) thanks to its breakthrough drama “The Handmaid’s Tale”; BBC America, which road to 10 nominations for “Planet Earth II” (increasing its haul from four nominations last year); and VH1, which went from zero to eight, mostly thanks to the strength of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

RuPaul Charles

Buchan/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

“Drag Race” moved to VH1 this year after having previously aired on Logo, a move that came as Viacom realigned its networks and identified VH1 as a core asset. Last year, host RuPaul Charles won the Emmy for outstanding reality host; this year, with its increased visibility on VH1, the show is finally also competing in the reality competition program race.

“When we were able to accomplish [RuPaul’s win] last year, we set our sights on getting the show and all the below-the-line categories the attention they deserve,” said Liza Burnett Fefferman, senior vice president of communications for VH1 and Logo.

For networks looking to break into the Emmy race, a few pointers:

Have a signature show that you can focus all, or most, of your attention. “We put a tremendous amount of marketing muscle into [‘Genius’], for one big scripted series,” Monroe said. “I didn’t have 30 series that I was trying to market and get attention for in that space. From the time we aired a very buzzworthy Super Bowl commercial in February all the way to For Your Consideration time, it was a big focus of ours.

Familiar awards contenders can’t hurt. “We were lucky to have Geoffrey Rush, and Johnny Flynn, and Ron [Howard] directed it, all lined up,” Grazer said of “Genius.”

Big isn’t always better. “We have a scrappy mentality here,” Burnett-Fefferman said of VH1’s strategy for both “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party.” “We hunkered down and put together what we felt was the most impactful strategy and came up with some really smart, unique ideas with a fraction of the budget that were seeing some of these massive streaming sites do.” Among the ideas: A “Drag Race” costume exhibit in West Hollywood that could be seen by motorists on the street.

Take advantage of timing. Many shows are now either shooting or airing their follow-up seasons during the summer, when Emmy voting is underway. For “Martha and Snoop,” VH1 was able to invite media to the Season 2 tapings and get coverage just as voters were considering the show’s first season for an Emmy. “These two people, everybody wants to be around, and we were able to capitalize on that fact,” Burnett Fefferman said.

Exploit your underdog status. “It felt like the way RuPaul transforms in every episode from a dashing man into this incredible woman, and how the show is all about empowerment and being accepted, those are all things that anyone can relate to,” Burnett Fefferman said. “And thats something we tried hard to get out there, in a targeted window.”

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