Before it morphed into the streaming giant it is today, Netflix was known as the company that mailed out DVDs to consumers. Remember DVDs? TV Academy members sure do, having been inundated this month with box set after box set of Emmy screeners — including a particularly massive one from, yep, Netflix.
Netflix prides itself as the future of TV, a world where people can watch whatever they want, whenever they want it, on any streaming device. But when it comes to Emmy campaigning, they still do things the old-fashioned way: with physical media.
It’s a fact of Emmy campaigning life, but even Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos is appalled. IndieWire recently asked Sarandos what he would change about the Emmy race, and he didn’t even hesitate: “The inefficiency of sending all those DVDs.”
But why does Netflix still do it? “Because everyone else does. We’re just trying to remain competitive,” he said.
A studio publicity exec told IndieWire that the idea of phasing out physical screeners has become “a game of chicken.” No one really wants to send DVDs out anymore, given how expensive it is to manufacture and ship all of those box sets.
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Yet, “everyone’s afraid not to send them out,” he said. “Every publicity head at every studio, network, and platform looks forward to the day when DVD screener mailers are no more.”
A typical studio mailer with multiple titles (which could mean ten or more DVDs) might cost a minimum of $1 million. That includes TV Academy fees of $200 per episode, per peer group (of which there are 29) — up to a flat rate of $2000 per episode.
In other words, if you’re sending out a complete 10-episode series, the fee alone could be $20,000. Do that for ten shows, and you’re paying $200,000 — just in fees. Then throw in manufacturing and postage… and it’s not cheap. Two years ago, Netflix made headlines by sending out a 20-pound litany of multiple boxes that insiders said cost as much as $4 million to produce and ship.
“It’s a very expensive proposition for the big question mark of whether people are watching these shows and voting responsibly,” said awards consultant and veteran PR exec Richard Licata. “I think the whole thing is preposterous and the process is long past its time to be updated. There have to be other creative alternatives to getting product in front of voters so that they don’t feel they are drowning.”
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Licata noted that he already has 30 screener sets piling up on his kitchen table. “For some members, there’s still the thrill of receiving a package. And I’ve talked to some friends who lament all the screeners, but they also say it’s kind of cool, you get all these pretty packages. And then I’ll ask them if they watch them all, and they don’t. They don’t know what to do with them after they vote, they don’t want to throw out all these pretty boxes.
“It’s almost like the kind of presents that kids open up on Christmas morning, and then they never play with them again,” he added.
Part of the “playing chicken” problem is that no studio or network wants to be the one that goes first and eliminates physical screeners, potentially putting their talent and shows at a disadvantage. (And just as key, they don’t want to have to deal with angry talent and their reps, wondering if they’re less likely to be nominated as a result.)
But the biggest issue that comes up is the percentage of TV Academy members who are older and perhaps less tech-savvy. If they can’t be counted on to figure out how to stream screeners, the physical DVDs at least give them another option.
“We can’t count on them finding it on our FYC site, even though we all do that too,” the studio publicist said. “Until we’re convinced everyone will find shows online, we have to do it this way.”
Licata, however, wonders what percentage of the TV Academy’s approximately 23,000 members really even crack open the DVD screeners. “I’m somebody who’s dedicated to this process, and I can’t imagine starting to watch all these shows now so that I can make very informed choices on the ballot,” he said. We’re supposed to vote for the cream. Do people really find the cream before they vote?”
He suggests the process start sooner, as early as January, to give voters more time to actually watch. “We see over 50 mailers timed to June balloting. Approximately how many more new shows did you actually sample so it impacted your ballot selection? We’ve seen this over the years, they’re voting for the same thing. Do people really go into these boxes and try shows? I don’t know if they’re doing that.
“It would be less wasteful, and this has been my battle cry for years,” he said. “Things have to happen earlier.” (Licata, coincidentally, helped usher in the screener age in 1990, when he and other then-HBO execs placed VHS tapes at L.A. video stores for Emmy voters to borrow and watch.)
The Television Academy said it continues to keep an eye on the screener issue: “We continually evaluate and analyze our process,” a spokesperson said. “We’re obviously excited by the growth of our voting membership’s engagement and the ever-expanding television landscape. We intend to stay on the forefront of providing members ways to view content during Emmy voting season.”
The organization actually put more stringent rules in place several years ago when the box sets started getting too elaborate. After a “green revolt,” in which the Academy was criticized for not being environmentally friendly, guidelines were adopted that has standardized the DVD mailers to be something more manageable.
But ironically, that made the box sets less distinctive — and studio and network execs say their screeners have an even harder time now standing out in the flurry of mailers.
“It saved us a little money, but the whole point of campaigning and mailers were to set your product apart from the pack,” the studio publicist said. “Back in the day, we were able to do creative things.”
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Ideally, if the studios and networks could wean everyone off DVD screeners and move solely to streaming, they could save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Keeping up an FYC site, including hosting fees, costs less than $100,000.
But it will take someone with the heft and power to do it first — and Netflix seems like the obvious outlet to trigger the change. The studio publicist pointed out that “Netflix claims to do things differently,” and others could hide behind the streaming giant once it made a big change.
It could take a while, but Sarandos said he believed the shift “will organically happen. I think it would be better for the Academy and certainly better for the watchers if we didn’t do all that and we could put that money toward the Academy.” Streaming, he added, was the “practical, logical” choice to eventually move all of these FYC screeners.