the industry

The Making of an Emmy-Underdog Success Story

The major noms for Pop TV’s Schitt’s Creek and BBC America’s Killing Eve underscored the fact that the big guys haven’t locked up a monopoly on Emmy gold just yet. Photo: Pop

It’s arguably never been harder to snag an Emmy nomination, let alone win the small screen’s most coveted statuette. The primary problem is math: In the era of Too Much TV, there are literally a hundred more scripted shows vying to get noticed than even just five years ago, making it tougher than ever to get on the radar of the TV Academy’s 24,000 or so members. Then there’s the warping effect of big money, with deep-pocketed (relative) newcomers such as Netflix and Amazon joining Emmy-season veteran HBO in an escalating race to spend insane amounts of cash on elaborate campaigns designed to woo voters. And yet, as Tuesday’s nominations underscored with the shocking success of Pop TV’s Schitt’s Creek (four nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series) and BBC America’s Killing Eve (nine nominations, including Outstanding Drama Series), the big guys haven’t locked up a monopoly on Emmy gold just yet.

In a sign there’s a limit to how much Emmy love money can buy, those two underdog shows from smaller networks ended up scoring multiple nominations in major categories, while high-profile projects from Julia Roberts (Amazon’s Homecoming), Emma Stone (Netflix’s Maniac), and George Clooney (Hulu’s Catch-22) were virtually ignored by voters. It’s not that the Emmys have suddenly turned into the small-screen equivalent of film’s Independent Spirit Awards: Big shows on big networks continue to dominate. HBO and Netflix together this year earned a breathtaking 254 nominations, more than ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, and FX Networks combined. As one veteran TV insider points out, HBO and Netflix are virtually assured of big hauls every year, either because of reputation (HBO) or the sheer tonnage of programming output (Netflix.) And having a super-recognizable brand name still helps tremendously, as demonstrated by Saturday Night Live’s ability to land guest-actor nominations for so many of its celebrity visitors. (Robert De Niro for his Robert Mueller line reading? Really?)

But smaller networks and studios with comparatively tiny Emmy-campaign budgets are finding success fighting back against the awards season oligarchs by leaning into the buzz around their shows, be it critical raves or highly engaged fandoms. This lo-fi approach is less about genius planning and more a matter of necessity. As Pop TV president Brad Schwartz explains, much as his mid-size network loves Schitt’s Creek, its business model and modest budgets meant an HBO or Netflix-size awards campaign simply was never a possibility.

“The Emmys came to us as opposed to us going to the Emmys,” Schwartz told Vulture before this week’s nominations were announced. While the network’s PR team certainly worked overtime to raise the show’s profile, “the idea of us putting together huge Emmy campaigns and spending a lot of money to go get Emmys was never something we would ever do. [So] when the Emmy chatter started happening … it happened organically,” he said. “People out there thought that this was a show deserving of Emmys. The fans were all out there screaming for Emmys, and the critics [got] onboard.”

While grassroots support might not have meant much to Emmy voters ten or 15 years ago — or else Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars would’ve taken home a slew of statuettes — in the age of social media and dozens of entertainment-news websites (ahem, like the one you’re reading now), bottom-up Emmy campaigns today actually have a chance of working.

Sarah Barnett, president of the entertainment networks group at AMC Networks, believes organic support from fans of BBC America’s Killing Eve has been far more important in getting the show on the radar of awards voters than whatever billboards or trade ads the network has bought. “It really isn’t about the money you spend, because we were outspent everywhere you looked,” she told Vulture before Tuesday’s nominations came out. “We didn’t have big budgets for [Eve] because it wouldn’t have been rational to have spent crazily into it.”

Instead, Barnett explained, “having electric shows that aren’t just good but really kind of connected [to] audiences” results in a fandom that is “vociferous and hugely, highly engaged on social platforms,” thus generating what is essentially free campaign advertising for the show. It’s not unlike the world of electoral politics, where social media and modern tech-driven fundraising platforms have made it possible for underdog candidates to match or even outperform Establishment figures. Think of Killing Eve and Schitt’s Creek as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, raising huge amounts of money from small-dollar donations while Netflix and HBO rely on their own well-funded Super-PACs in order to compete.

Barnett first saw the potential power of organic campaigns back when she ran BBC America during the era of Orphan Black. Emmy voters didn’t have much history of honoring sci-fi or genre shows, let alone ones that aired on niche cable networks. And indeed, Orphan Black and star Tatiana Maslany were ignored their first two years of Emmy eligibility. But Orphan Black’s so-called Clone Club of online fans kept the show highly visible online, giving it greater presence than its relatively modest ratings would suggest it might merit. And even if Emmy voters never saw Orphan Black trend on Twitter, they likely read the countless stories about the Clone Club or the rave reviews, creating a feedback loop that ultimately helped Maslany score three Emmy noms and one win.

“I think the combination of that critical weight along with really incredible online social engagement around it created a feeling that there was something special and remarkable about this show,” Barnett says. “That combination — critics and people power on social platforms — really can push and elevate a show toward a place in Emmy voters’ minds.”

Still, small-to-midsize networks don’t just expect critical raves and tweets to magically translate into Emmy nominations and wins. In the case of Eve, Barnett made the decision to simulcast season two on both BBC America and its much bigger sibling, AMC. While that call was mostly about getting bigger ratings (and more ad dollars), it surely raised the show’s profile with potential voters. Momentum also matters: The two nominations Eve snagged last year (for Sandra Oh and writing) likely helped set the stage for this week’s nine nods, particularly since the “snub” of co-star Jodie Comer further activated the show’s online base (and journalists) to lobby for her to be recognized.

The two nominations Killing Eve received last year helped set the stage for the nine nods it received in 2019. Photo: Gareth Gatrell/BBCAmerica

What’s more, Emmy’s “underdog” shows are still usually backed by significant and very strategic campaigns, even if said efforts lack the oodles of cash bigger platforms toss around. In the case of Schitt’s Creek, Pop TV marketing and publicity execs sought to maximize the effectiveness of free media such as talk-show appearances and magazine covers. It was no accident the series landed on the cover of industry trade Adweek in early May, right in the middle of Emmy-campaign season, Schwartz says. “Our press team gets a lot of [free] media,” he explains. “Dan [Levy] had an Ellen appearance strategically placed during Emmy season. We flew the cast out to do Deadline’s The Contenders series. Some of the cast were on the MTV Movie and TV Awards … As a smaller network, we can’t compete with huge billboards asking for Emmys. We’ve just done what we can to remind everyone of the great show that everyone loves and to just throw some fuel on the fire that already exists.”

Pop is hardly alone in plotting such media hits — it’s standard procedure for most networks with viable Emmy candidates — but in the age of social media and viral clips, it’s far easier to amplify such appearances. A decade ago, a For Your Consideration (FYC) Emmy event for Academy voters, such as a panel featuring the show’s cast and creators, might have gotten a mention in industry trades like Daily Variety, or perhaps pop up on the party-picture pages of a People or Entertainment Weekly. A visit to a late-night show would only be seen by whoever was watching the show. Now, Daniel Levy accepting an MTV award for Schitt’s Creek gets covered by a couple dozen online news outlets, gets talked up on Twitter, and can even end up as a GIF.

Is any of this remotely as valuable as the splashy bicoastal billboards and New York Times full-page ads that are the hallmark of a big HBO, FX, or Netflix campaign? Probably not! But Donald Trump was able to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 despite spending far less on traditional ads than his opponents, in part by maximizing his free media exposure. Thinking smartly about the intersection of fan culture and media (both traditional and online) doesn’t cost a lot of money, and it may help level the playing field, at least somewhat, with networks that spend a lot more on Emmys.

That’s certainly the theory over at Viacom, the corporate entity behind Comedy Central, TV Land, and several other networks.  Marketing senior VP Shawn Silverman says he works with the various platforms under his purview to figure out “how clever and creative we can become with these campaigns” without breaking the bank. “Everyone’s doing the traditional campaigns, so we really challenge ourselves to try to zig when other people are zagging,” he says.

Toward that end, Viacom’s networks have leaned heavily on stunt marketing, like putting real-life cowboys on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in order to tout Paramount Network’s Yellowstone, or setting up the Donald J. Trump Presidential Twitter Library as a backdoor way of campaigning for The Daily Show With Trevor Noah. Having the museum pop up in Washington, D.C., during voting season this year (or in Los Angeles a year ago) results in a flood of tweets and Facebook posts from fans engaging with the show as well as media coverage of the event.

Similarly, rather than just taking out a standard billboard for The Daily Show, this year Comedy Central put up one reminding Emmy voters not to “Green Book this one, guys,” and then had host Noah “defend” the provocative message in an interview with Variety, a widely read outlet among those casting ballots. “It’s not necessarily always about how much you’re spending,” Silverman says. “The goal is really to break through that clutter.” It may have worked: After being ignored by voters for the first two years of Noah’s run, The Daily Show — an Emmy darling during Jon Stewart’s tenure as anchor — was finally nominated for Best Variety/Talk Show in 2018, and again this week.

Of course, for every Cinderella story like Schitt’s Creek or Killing Eve, Emmy-nomination morning is filled with a dozen other examples of smaller shows — and, as noted, some very big ones — being overlooked. Schitt’s Creek had rave reviews, a die-hard fanbase, and a plum syndication window on Netflix for years before it finally broke through. Silverman and the other Emmy strategists at Viacom/Comedy Central pulled out all the stunt-y stops on behalf of the very much buzzed-about The Other Two (nominated for a TV Critics Association Award), but they were left with bupkis Tuesday.

Such outcomes may be disappointing, but network execs insist there’s still an upside to mounting an extensive yet cost-effective Emmy push. At a time when shows across networks and platforms are struggling for attention (and viewers), being part of the awards-season conversation helps to raise a project’s overall profile. “We’re putting [shows] out there because we believe that they deserve nominations, but the reality is not everyone can get nominated,” Silverman says. “These types of campaigns get additional exposure for those shows, so the Emmy window is a piece of the year-round promotional plan. Every opportunity we can to spotlight the show and raise awareness for it, the better.”

And when a guerrilla Emmy strategy works? Pop TV’s Schwartz, understandably, is feeling pretty good right now. “It restores my faith in the process that quality can still break through,” he told Vulture on Wednesday, after having had some time to digest the four nominations for Schitt’s Creek. “You have to be that much greater, and having an entire network completely devoted to supporting you and believing in you also helps. But it can happen.”

The Making of an Emmy Underdog Success Story