One network enters, two networks exit. The era of Peak TV has added several new outlets to the Emmy race in key scripted categories – and the new entrants this year include Epix, the premium cable service that recently launched an ambitious original series strategy.
Meanwhile, this may be the final year that two other networks compete in those categories, as they appear to be exiting the premium scripted game: WGN America, which is adjusting its programming strategy away from prestige drama like “Underground,” and A&E, which is returning to its core focus on unscripted fare as “Bates Motel” ends its run.
For nascent cable and streaming networks, an Emmy nomination (or even better, an Emmy win) is a clear sign, particularly to the industry, that you’ve arrived. That prestige is often used as a marketing tool, or as justification in boosting subscriber fees or additional distribution. It also gives street cred to a network, helping to attract more creative talent.
In 1987, three major nominations for FOX’s “The Tracey Ullman Show” sent a signal that the fourth broadcast network was in the game. Cable TV was finally allowed eligibility into the Emmy race in 1988, and HBO won the first major acting award for cable in 1990 (for Hume Cronyn, as best actor in a miniseries, movie or special). In 1993, “The Larry Sanders Show” was the first cable show to be nominated in the outstanding comedy series category, and “The Sopranos” broke the drama barrier a few years later.
In 2002, Michael Chiklis won the best actor Emmy for “The Shield,” signaling FX’s entry into the big leagues; then in 2008, AMC’s “Mad Men” and FX’s “Damages” were the first basic cable shows nominated in the outstanding drama series category. More recently, in 2013, Netflix’s “House of Cards” signaled the arrival of streaming services.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to be a part of the conversation,” said Jocelyn Diaz, who joined Epix in 2015 as executive vice president of original programming. “To have a presence at all is exciting. We hope people are able to respond to what we’re able to put out there.”
Diaz also noted that, as consumers spread their money around multiple pay options, premium channels like Epix must generate unique (and awards-caliber) offerings.
“For premium television, where you’re asking a subscriber to pay an extra amount of money, what starts to market it is saying there’s original programming behind it,” she said. “That really drives subscriber growth. For us that still matters. Original programming will be a big part of what we’re looking to do in the year to come.”
Epix came out of the gate with a new drama, “Berlin Station,” a CIA thriller about what happens when classified information is leaked, and the comedy “Graves,” starring Nick Nolte as a former president who has no filter.
“We lucked into incredible timeliness,” Diaz said of both shows. “Any attention we can get for things being spoken about our programming is really important. For people to have awareness that we’re out there, that we’re a place to come for original programming.”
Epix tapped into that timeliness for its “Berlin Station” and “Graves” Emmy campaigns. The show’s “For Your Consideration” ads featured taglines that reflected current headlines, and also gave Emmy voters a free preview trial period during the voting window in June.
It’s those key scripted categories that networks desire recognition for in order to cut through the clutter, but by changing strategies, WGN and A&E will rely on the non-fiction categories for any Emmy glory.
“It’s really competitive and for those networks, they made the choices they did in terms of feeling like the equation didn’t make sense for them anymore, for what they were looking to do to build their businesses.” Diaz said.
WGN America, however, hopes to go out with a bang via its aggressive Emmy campaign for “Underground.” The drama, its cast, and its creative team were submitted in every eligible category, and TV Academy members were sent an elaborate mailer – including access to the network’s “For Your Consideration” site and episodes on DVD. An extensive campaign was also conducted in digital, print and social media.
“Nothing changed for us, except our strategy going forward,” said one exec.