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Mrs. Maisel bagels, Quibi’s quest, and Zoom, Zoom, Zoom: Emmy campaigns in the age of COVID-19

How the Emmy fight has become a quest for TV legitimacy amid a crowded streaming landscape.

Mrs. Maisel bagels, Quibi’s quest, and Zoom, Zoom, Zoom: Emmy campaigns in the age of COVID-19
[Photo: Flickr user ITU Pictures; Manos Gkikas/Unsplash; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: Prime Video; The Mandalorian: Disney+; The Handmaid’s Tale: Jasper Savage/Hulu; Ramy: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu; The Crown: Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix]

In recent weeks, anyone with a pulse—but particularly those who happen to be voting members of the Television Academy—have been aware of Amazon Prime Video’s Emmy campaign for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

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There was a gift basket filled to the brim with bagels, lox, whitefish, capers, a bottle of rosé, and Maisel-emblazoned champagne glasses delivered to voters’ homes (as well as members of the awards press). There have been “Maisel Monday” watch parties once a week on Amazon Live and Twitter Watch, where cast and crew members Tweet along with fans as they watch an episode of the show, followed by a live conversation. And last week there was a drive-in event at the Grove in Los Angeles, where viewers parked their cars atop the parking structure at the outdoor shopping mall and watched two episodes of the show while enjoying complimentary food (and gift bags). Amazon also partnered with L.A. staple Jon and Vinny’s, donating $1 million to the hip restaurant’s catering team to help deliver meals to families in need during COVID-19. Anyone ordering food from Jon and Vinny’s will find that it’s delivered in bags bearing the Amazon logo.

Maisel is, of course, already an Emmy mainstay—last year, it won eight awards—as is Amazon. But with 20 nominations this year (or two-thirds of Amazon’s entire Emmy nomination haul), the show is the streamer’s biggest horse in the race by far and is a way for Amazon to continue to prove its worth.

Indeed, every year, the months-long lead up to the Emmy’s is a way for networks—and now streaming companies—to not just drum up attention for their shows, but prove their legitimacy as purveyors of must-watch entertainment.

Never has this been more true than this year, as the streaming world has become a crowded field cluttered with new players like Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, HBO Max, and Peacock (which, alas, launched too late in time for this year’s Emmy race). As each service strives to distinguish itself and attract subscribers, the Emmy’s is seen as the ultimate gateway drug. Playing by the rulebook established so many years ago by HBO, the streamers understand all too well that racking up awards for prestigious shows accomplishes multiple things at once: It establishes a strong brand identity, attracts top creatives, and paves the way for more creative leeway down the line (i.e., if you start out with The Sopranos, then you can make Game of Thrones).

And, of course, it earns bragging rights. 

Even Quibi, the short-form video service launched by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman in April, is elbowing its way into the proceedings in order to prove that it deserves a seat at the table. (And to rack up more subscriptions: Quibi online awards videos, of which there are many, drive viewers to sign up for the service.)

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Indeed having shocked observers by nabbing 10 Emmy nominations for such shows as #FreeRayShawn, starring Lawrence Fishburne and directed by Antoine Fuqua, and the Anna Kendrick-starring Dummy-  Quibi has become ubiquitous on the virtual awards panels and Q&As that now define the season. As one Emmy consultant put it, “I’m definitely feeling Quibi this year. It’s like, ‘Oh! There’s Quibi again!” 

Says another awards marketer: “They’re in it to win it.”

But how, exactly, does one “win,” or even pull ahead, in a race that has never had so many limitations and curveballs, thanks to the pandemic?

Due to social-distancing mandates and the inability to stage large gatherings, gone are the FYC (For Your Consideration) events that typically dominate the calendar this time of year. This means that no longer can hordes of Emmy voters—there are over 25,000 of them in total—swarm into lavish spaces to hear stars, producers, and crew members pontificate on their craft before being wined and dined and offered up swag and selfie opportunities.

Even sending out gift baskets and other promotional goodies has become less rampant thanks to Covid. Billboards and outdoor advertising, meanwhile, have been curtailed in response to stay-at-home orders, though that has started to shift in recent weeks. 

The answer, it seems, is to go hard on what promotional platforms do exist (i.e. digital), as well as to try to come up with attention-grabbing gambits that are COVID-safe. “Everyone is doing everything they can, trying to figure out how to reach voters,” says the consultant. “While you have to have compassion and grace” because of what’s going on with COVID-19, “it’s just sort of like, ‘We’re in this. There’s no getting out of it. How do you reach people?'” 

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WHO’S ZOOMIN’ WHO

As in the rest of the world, the most defining characteristic of this year’s Emmy campaign is the presence of Zoom and other digital meetup platforms. All of the “for your consideration” (FYC) panels that are traditionally put on by the guilds and trade publications such as Variety and Deadline have simply gone virtual, with links blasted out to Emmy voters.

Now, instead of posing with a costume designer at an event or taking a selfie with with Ozark‘s Jason Bateman, viewers get to see talent in the comfort of their tasteful homes, to alluring—if sometimes very awkward and glitch-laden—effect.

Awards consultants swoon that the new digital twist has been nothing but roses. So many more people can watch, now that panels aren’t limited to a 200-seat theater! So easy for the talent: They just have to roll out of bed! Nor do they have to deal with a three-hour junket or a night of fake smiles and handshakes! No limit to how many people you can have in a conversation—throw in the second assistant director! No hair or makeup costs! Not to mention airfare!

More seriously, as another consultant put it: “People are there really to be engaged in the conversation and the content. They’re not there to get a piece of chicken or a photo with a celebrity. It does feel that people show up because there’s a real curiosity. Also the environment that COVID-19 has created is that people are watching a ton more content.” 

But as to how much actual engagement these endless conversations engender is hard to gauge. Are people watching the discussions all the way through? Are they in the kitchen making a sandwich while listening to a TV or computer that’s in the living room? (Where’s a Netflix algorithm when you need one?) No one seems to know, but in the absence of better alternatives, the networks and steamers are leaning in hard, paying between $20,000 and $30,000 to be part of digital panels hosted not just by the trades and other industry publications but newcomers like the Half Hour With series, created by longtime marketing and event production expert Madelyn Hammond, who was formerly Variety‘s chief marketing officer. 

Netflix, which leads the race with 160 Emmy nominations, has gone even further with its digital strategy, creating an AI experience (FYSEE-360) where viewers can go deeper into shows like The Crown, Ozark, and Stranger Things, as well as a site loaded up with interviews with cast members from its shows, table reads, and other content that is more slickly produced than a typical Zoom panel. The content doesn’t just live on the site, but is also blasted out across Netflix’s myriad social media channels. 

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QUIRKING IT UP

Beyond digital, Emmy contenders are working hard to think outside the Zoom box in order to, as one consultant put it, “clutter bust” in the age of COVID-19.

A series of drive-ins was also hosted by Disney at the Rose Bowl, with each night dedicated to a Disney Emmy contender, including Disney Plus’s The Mandalorian, Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, and ABC’s Black-ish. A red carpet and “drive and repeat” was set up, where participants could have a photo taken of them in their car behind a branded backdrop. Food was also run out by masked servers (“Mia’s meatloaf” was served in honor of Little Fires Everywhere), and there was of course swag—notably, Baby Yodas for The Mandalorian.  

Other clever workarounds have included masks sent out to voters in honor of Fox’s The Masked Singer.

As stay-at-home orders have lifted, more billboards have been popping up around voter hotspots like L.A. and New York. Hulu erected one for its documentary Hillary that reads “Hillary 2020.” In smaller print it says: “We’re talking about the Emmy’s.”

Companies like Apple have done their share of digital panels, but are focused more on traditional media promotion, given that they have major star wattage on hand. The company’s biggest contender is The Morning Show starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. “When you have Jennifer Aniston, straightforward promotional bookings give you everything you need,” says one consultant. “You don’t have to lean into being out of the box or quirky. When Jennifer Aniston agrees to talk, it’s a big enough deal.” 

WINNER TAKES IT ALL

In the end, though, it’s a numbers game, and the headlines on September 21—the morning after this year’s Emmy broadcast—will be who notched the most wins.

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The most heated battle this year, as has become the norm, is between Netflix and HBO, the ultimate old-school Emmy stalwart which nabbed 107 nominations for such shows as Watchmen, Succession, and Big Little Lies. To rack up wins, networks and streamers are pushing harder on below-the-line categories this year like production design and visual effects. “Everyone’s gunning for everything,” says one former awards marketer. “They want to get those wins in the crafts.”

Hence the “virtual house” that Deadline and HBO recently hosted featuring a discussion with Westworld‘s director of photography, production designer, and VFX supervisor, all of whom, the invitation stated, “helped to bring 2058 Los Angeles to life.” (Season three of the series is set in a dystopian, futuristic L.A.)

Below-the-line categories have become more of an ingrained part of Emmy campaigning for other reasons as well. Productions have become more elaborate and the awards business senses additional revenue streams: More awards events means more money in partnerships and advertising.

“Look,” says the awards marketer. “Everyone’s peeling the onion trying to see if there’s one more layer to exploit.”

Gross numbers aside, HBO remains the heavyweight in the three major categories: Best Comedy (along with Amazon), Best Drama and Best Limited series, and overall has more nominations per show than Netflix.

Let the showdown begin.

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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