TV Academy members don’t vote for shows they haven’t seen, and few factors entice them to check out a new series more than a household name, which NBC’s drama Shades of Blue has in Jennifer Lopez — or at least a name well known in the households of voters, as Showtime’s drama Billions offers in Damian Lewisand Paul Giamatti (Emmy winners for Homeland and John Adams, respectively) and Hulu’s drama The Pathboasts in Aaron Paul (a three-time winner for Breaking Bad). An interesting case this year is Horace and Pete, a drama distributed via the independent website LouisCK.net (but made available to voters on screeners), which features more big names than any other new show (Louis C.K., Steve Buscemi, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange, Alan Alda and Laurie Metcalf). “Stars put a show on the map,” laments a longtime Emmy strategist whose shows lack them this cycle.
A series can overcome a relatively unknown cast by capturing the social or cultural zeitgeist and, as a result, garnering media attention and praise. Aziz Ansari had a loyal fan base as a stand-up comedian (he has sold out Madison Square Garden), but interest in and coverage of him reached new heights after Netflix released his comedy Master of None, which features a diverse cast and largely revolves around issues of diversity at a time when everyone in Hollywood is focused on them. Similarly relevant: WGN America’s drama Undergroundexplores the history of racial tensions in the U.S., CBS’ drama Supergirl presents a female-empowerment story, and Lifetime’s comedy UnREAL spoofs the inanity and insanity of reality TV, which has helped propel Donald Trump to the presumptive GOP presidential nomination.
Awards often beget other awards. That’s why one can’t dismiss the importance of, say, the Golden Globe Awards, which cast a spotlight on shows in January, months before Emmy voting begins. The HFPA, the group that determines Globe winners, loves to champion new series. This year it threw its weight behind USA’s critically beloved Mr. Robot (drama series and supporting actor in a series, miniseries or TV movie), The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (actress in a comedy series) and FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel (actress in a miniseries or TV movie). The Critics’ Choice Awards — full disclosure: I’m a voter — also championed Mr. Robot(drama series, actor and supporting actor) and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (actress in a comedy series), as well asMaster of None (comedy series) and UnREAL (supporting actress in a drama series).
Not every outlet is in a financial position to mount a full-fledged Emmy campaign — mailers, microsites, billboards, ads and FYC events for which talent, food and booze are brought in (“There’s practically one a night now,” vents a veteran cable executive with disgust) — so, fairly or not, those that can have a leg up. Netflix has demonstrated unparalleled vigor on the campaign circuit, which means one shouldn’t underestimate its new dramas Narcos, Jessica Jones and Sense8 and comedies Love, The Ranch and Flaked, along with Master of None. Other big spenders include Amazon (which is invested in its drama The Man in the High Castle) and HBO (pushing hard to resuscitate its drama Vinyl).
It’s possible when Emmy nominations are announced July 14 that only one or two new shows will have landed a series nom — the best bets, most believe, are Mr. Robot and Master of None. But backers of all of them are fighting hard because shows that don’t land a series nom for their first outing rarely rebound to land any for subsequent seasons. Voters simply move on to the latest shiny new thing.