The Emmy Lemming Effect: Are Emmy box mailers so last century?

Guest column by Richard Licata, CEO of Licata & Co., a television marketing agency specializing in awards. Licata is a veteran Emmy campaigner who’s spearheaded awards efforts for HBO, Showtime, FX, USA, Fox and NBC

It must be June. I know this not just because June gloom is in full swing in Southern California, but because my desk is stacked high with more than 40 elaborate boxes from networks, cable companies, studios and streaming services rivaling each other in their “inventive” package design. Within them are the hopes of the Emmy season.

Surveying this embarrassment of riches, I got to thinking about the fact that when HBO sent out the first Emmy mailer more than 25 years ago — the purpose was a practical one: to give Emmy voters who may not have been cable subscribers the opportunity to view their programs in an effort to garner attention and nominations. In the ensuing years, the boxes have become more elaborate, more expensive — and certainly de rigueur — with networks and studios shelling out an average of $1 million each to design, produce, and send them to the Academy’s 19,000 members. As Daniel Holloway noted in Variety last year, Netflix’s 2016 mailer — a 4-box set — was estimated to cost between $2.5 and $3 million and elicited some awe and more than a few groans from the Emmy voters receiving the 20 pounds of boxes. He pointed out that, in today’s digital environment, most everyone could have accessed the material from the free access code Netflix provided — at considerable savings to the streaming service and the environment.

Which leads me to question what the real value of the Emmy box mailer is? It seems so last century in this digital age. In today’s world of binge watching and streaming, do television academy voters really watch the hundreds of DVDs that show up in May — or have the boxes just become “excess baggage” — emphasis on the “excess”? I suspect the “Emmy lemming effect” may be to blame. It’s possible that the TV industry is collectively spending millions on these Little Boxes (even if the model is outdated) — just because everyone else is still doing it.

Sure, the boxes are a prestigious (and very expensive) way of reinforcing a brand — and maybe, more importantly, showing love to producers and talent — but maybe there is a more creative and relevant way to showcase programming and stroke egos. Maybe it’s time to think “outside the box'” when it comes to Emmy campaigns.

This may sound like marketing heresy, but it’s quite possible that box mailers and screenings have outlived their usefulness (without the networks and studios really taking note). On the other hand, there is still an important case to be made for the value of a robust PR campaign — beginning with the very launch of a show — and continuing throughout the show’s run — even if viewers are able to download the entire season on day one. Generating editorial — in print and online — creates buzz and stacks the deck for shows early on — far before Emmy voting begins.

While changing delivery systems mean we aren’t all watching shows at the same time, rendering the water cooler discussion a thing of the past, ongoing publicity surrounding a show keeps it in front of us viewers (and voters) — generating conversation and reminding us of the series’ relevance to our lives.

Channeling some of the resources and creativity currently spent on Little Boxes into an inventive public relations campaign from the very get-go would give a show the chance to become part of the zeitgeist come awards season. The challenge is the same for everyone: how to break out of all the white noise and get viewers and voters to take note of your show(s). Maybe the answer isn’t the over-priced, over-done box mailer (gasp!) — and here I must admit that I am a sucker for some clever packaging and gorgeous graphic design. But if I’m honest, I think the box mailer has become a kind of bailout — a last ditch effort to get voter attention (and to demonstrate to the CEO that there is, indeed, a creative — and expensive — Emmy campaign strategy in play). And I think it’s possible that now, in 2017, the boxes may have become just so much more white noise.

Think it would be interesting this year to track the correlation between money spent on box mailings and actual nominations received – and to survey academy voters to see how many actually watch the boxed DVDs compared to how many stream the episodes.

Already this season there have been a few networks willing to think outside the screening/mailer box. Amazon and Netflix created 4-walled museum-like installations — pop-up activations as it were — featuring their shows through panels, screening events, parties and immersive sets — which proved to be a fresh and inventive way to focus attention on their programming and their talent. (Alas, they both still shipped boxes as well — hedging their bets.) IFC sent out one of the most creative and cost conscious mailers of the year: a 3.5 x 5.5-inch (you’re reading right) flash drive – and the producers of “Mom” decided to appeal to the political sensibilities of voters and make a donation to Planned Parenthood in lieu of an Emmy FYC campaign. But no one this season has grabbed attention and positioned a show so firmly within the zeitgeist as FX with their stand-out FYC campaign for “The Americans” — featuring an edgy “The Russians Are Here” slogan and compelling images of the Washington monument shrouded in the 1980s red Soviet flag emblazoned with a gold hammer and sickle in startling full-page ads in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

I’m wondering if, come nomination day July 13, many of the other campaigners will regret that they didn’t re-think the box and invest in fresh, innovative, 21st century promotional strategies (ones with better ROIs) to help them break out of the pack and get a firmer grip on the gold?

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