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What HBO’s Emmy Strategy Tells Us About the 2019 Race Overall — Analysis

When it comes to HBO — TV's historical leader in all things awards — what shows get the biggest Emmy push tell us more than one network's strategy.

HBO 2019 Emmy Strategy

“True Detective,” “My Brilliant Friend,” and “Succession” are all HBO Emmy contenders

HBO

During the many months of campaigning preceding the actual Emmy nominations, anything is possible. That low-rated, critically hailed, but never-nominated show? Sure, it could sneak into the Emmy race. The popular awards veteran that suffered an off year? Maybe it will get what it deserves! Prognosticators, PR reps, and the general public can all speculate to the ends of the earth.

But networks can’t. Whether they’ve got dozens of shows on the ballot or just a handful, whether they’ve got millions in their awards coffers or just enough shekels to play the game, TV providers need to read the tea leaves, play the odds, and put their money behind the shows with the best chance of breaking into a very crowded TV race. After all, what are all those months of screenings, screeners, and special events for if not finding time to fit in all the eligible, award-worthy programs?

Enter HBO. After 18 years leading all networks in Emmy nominations, 2018 saw the premium cable giant dethroned by Netflix and its onslaught of content. This year, HBO has more programs on the ballot in the three major categories — up two to 18 total — while offering plenty of TV movies, documentaries, and docuseries as well, but it’s not yet ready to go toe-to-toe in quantity with the streaming behemoth. (Netflix submitted more than twice the number of dramas, comedies, and limited series.)

So what did HBO do to maximize its nomination count and snatch back its crown? By researching awards ads that ran in April through June print editions of the two most-read Hollywood trade publications, as well as assessing the FYC events held in Los Angeles and New York during that same period, IndieWire has gleaned a few insights into HBO’s strategy that also give a peek at what’s going on in the race overall. (HBO declined to comment for this story.) With less than a week before nominations are unveiled, let’s take a look at the circumstances and decisions that shaped the impending results.

Drama Is the Land of Opportunity — Even When You’ve Got ‘Game of Thrones

One of the bigger storylines surrounding this year’s Emmy race is the surprising space available in the drama category. With established favorites like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Crown,” and “Stranger Things” all ineligible, many expect this race to see some new faces — and networks see 2019 as an opportunity to break into a normally crowded category.

Count HBO among them. Even with the reigning drama champion, “Game of Thrones,” in its corner, the premium cable giant is putting significant effort toward its other dramas, too. As expected, the final season of HBO’s most-watched series is getting the biggest push, with the most ads and a hot-ticket FYC event (where the network showed Episode 3, “The Long Night,” at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood). But “Succession” had a sizable presence, as well. Initial reviews were good enough, but Jesse Armstrong’s black comic drama picked up steam toward season’s end and then went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination, as well as recognition from the DGA, WGA, and, most recently, TCA Awards. HBO took note, getting the cast and creator together for a New York-based FYC event (while they’re shooting Season 2) and slotting consistent, well-placed ads in the trades.

HBO Drama FYC Ads

Percentage of ads placed in Variety and THR, April – June 2019

Perhaps most surprising (and most welcome) is HBO’s push for “My Brilliant Friend.” The subtitled, Italian-language adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novels was a critical smash, if not a ratings juggernaut. What could be seen as a hard sell for the TV Academy’s massive membership base still got a handful of ads and prominent billboard placement around Los Angeles. HBO has a good track record backing well-received series facing an uphill climb to get nominated, including a recent big spend on “The Leftovers.”

Even if “My Brilliant Friend” is not nominated, the exposure for an ongoing, respected series is good for the show, the network, and the upcoming streaming service HBO Max — which needs to showcase as much content as possible to compete in the streaming wars — but if HBO can snag two drama series slots in a weak year, it would hold ground with last year — when “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld” were both nominated — and keep the network on track for the future. “Westworld” will be back to compete at next year’s Emmys, as will “Succession,” “My Brilliant Friend,” and plenty of new offerings (like the upcoming “Watchmen” series and this summer’s “Big Little Lies”). Once you’re in at the TV Academy, it’s a lot easier to stay in, making this year all the more important for young dramas with good potential.

On the flip side, once you’re out, you tend to stay out, which could be why “The Deuce” didn’t receive the same attention it did in its debut season. A short future (Season 3 will mark its end) paired with dwindling awards attention (Season 1 earned a Globes and WGA nod, but Season 2 snagged none) could’ve dropped its priority on the Emmy line this season, though sexual misconduct allegations swirling around star James Franco could’ve been just as much of a burden. Still, even though there wasn’t an official FYC event or a big ad spend in the trades, HBO still held a fundraiser with the cast at Housing Works in New York during the voting period.

Comedy Is a Brutal Battle, So Stick with the Hits

If the drama competition is a bit sparse, the comedy race is packed. Five of last year’s seven nominees are back for the 2019 race, and all have odds in the “pretty good” to “fantastic” range. Toss in the freshmen series wanting a slice of the action — “Russian Doll,” “Dead to Me,” “Shrill,” “Kidding,” “The Other Two,” etc. — and suddenly everyone needs to fortify their position.

With that in mind, HBO doesn’t appear to be taking any chances. More than 90 percent of their ad buys were split between three-time Outstanding Comedy Series winner “Veep” and three-time Emmy winner “Barry.” That makes even more sense given either one could be considered the category frontrunner, as David Mandel’s seventh season turned in a brilliant ending and Bill Hader’s sophomore outing did anything but slump. Each is beloved, each could eventually win it all, and each got a good push from HBO — meaning FYC events with celebrity moderators (Conan O’Brien ran the “Barry” panel) and marketing pushes emphasizing historical impact. (“Veep” was hailed as “TV’s Greatest Comedy” around Los Angeles, on billboards with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ eponymous V.P. on a Forever stamp.)

HBO Comedy FYC Ads

Percentage of ads placed in Variety and THR, April – June 2019

The only other HBO comedy on the ballot that earned an FYC event was Issa Rae’s “Insecure,” while former hopefuls like “Camping” and “Crashing” were sidelined post-cancelation. “Sally4Ever,” Julia Davis’ well-reviewed comedy, is perhaps the most glaring omission, but now seems like a good time to point out that HBO doesn’t have the kind of awards budget its competitors do. While Netflix can host 10 official FYC events for its comedies alone, HBO managed just eight total for all its drama, comedy, and limited series. The cabler can’t yet take advantage of its new parent company’s deep pockets, though that could change in future races. In fact, it may have to: Next year will likely see added competition from big spenders like Disney+ and Apple+, not to mention Amazon’s increased presence and more looking to make their mark in the prestige TV space — a space HBO isn’t willing to give up.

Limited Series Is the Year’s Biggest Toss-Up

Before the spring season hit — hell, before May — most people felt like they had a good read on the limited series categories. Much like the Golden Globes in January, the race would boil down to Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora” and HBO’s “Sharp Objects” — two critically respected ratings hits that feature movie star talent in every corner. While “True Detective” would pick up a bit of love, maybe another trophy for Mahershala Ali’s shelf, Amy Adams would compete against Patricia Arquette, Ben Stiller would throw down against Jean-Marc Vallée, and the series showdown between “Sharp” and “Escape” would be one for the ages.

Well, a lot changed in May. Not only did Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” drop on the last day of eligibility and fight its way to the front of the race, but so did a sneaky little hit called “Chernobyl.” It really doesn’t feel like HBO saw “Chernobyl’s” success coming. It’s only five episodes long. Its biggest name is Jared Harris. It aired on Monday nights, a relatively new timeslot for the network. And yet as viewers groaned at “Game of Thrones” on Sundays, they stuck around for “Chernobyl” on Mondays — and loved it.

Chernobyl Episode 5 Legasov

“Chernobyl”

Liam Daniel/HBO

Plenty has been written about the historical tragedy’s surprising success, but its out-of-nowhere rise brings up a central dilemma facing leading contenders for limited series, if not the Emmys overall: immediate buzz vs. accumulated affluence, or timeliness vs. overall quality.

Take “Sharp Objects.” The prestige limited series checks all the boxes. Movie star prestige? Check. Ratings hit? Check. A well-run FYC campaign? Check. Not only did “Sharp Objects” play well with the HFPA, SAG, DGA, WGA, PGA, Gotham Awards, and more, but HBO had time to implement a revitalizing strategy during the 2019 Emmy voting period. “Sharp Objects” premiered way back in July 2018, but then it came back to prominence in best-of lists and awards shows in December and January, before the network kicked its FYC campaign into gear. “Sharp Objects” landed plenty of billboards around Los Angeles and controlled more than 45 percent of the ads for HBO’s limited series. The network is treating it like a frontrunner, making it the focus in trades, hosting an FYC event, and offering plenty of interview opportunities — this is how a primary campaign is run, and run well.

…but is it enough? Patricia Clarkson won at the Globes, but “Sharp Objects” lost in every other award race mentioned. That doesn’t meant the TV Academy won’t spark to it, but plenty of prognosticators are citing a lack of momentum for the one-time frontrunner. Meanwhile, “Chernobyl” had none of those advantages. Whether HBO was banking on the free publicity surrounding the episodes’ rollout or because all the event slots were filled by the time “Chernobyl” became a success, there was no official FYC event for the miniseries. It snagged as many ads as “True Detective,” but some were clearly bought to promote the show, not as FYC ads. They can serve a duel purpose, of course, but that only brings us back to the question: How much does release timing and the buzz that comes with it matter to the voters?

Of course, “Chernobyl” and “Sharp Objects” could both get nominated, but what about “True Detective”? Released in January to rave reviews for Ali and strong reviews for the season overall, Nic Pizzolatto’s third entry in the popular franchise is his first real time competing as a limited series. Season 1 submitted as a Drama Series, squaring off with “Breaking Bad” (and losing most of the races), while Season 2, well, let’s just say it didn’t really compete (though technically it was nominated for Sound Mixing). Season 3 was all squared up to hold a solid presence at the Emmys, but now the race is suddenly crowded, and the midseason release could get lost in the middle of the pack. HBO backed it with another good campaign, but the results of this race could shed some light on just how much of an effect FYC campaigns have — and how they change in the future.

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