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Peak TV has given us so many things in recent years—a wider array of programming, marginal improvements in representation, really bad takes on the internet—and enlivened competition at TV’s most glamorous evening, the Primetime Emmy Awards, could be next. In recent years, new (Netflix and Amazon) or previously ignored (IFC, SundanceTV, and BBC America) content providers have crashed the Emmy parties previously dominated by HBO, AMC, PBS, FX, and the occasional broadcast network. Common Hollywood logic tells us that the value of scoring that proverbial party invite cannot be taken for granted. If the Television Academy recognizes your performance, show, or streaming service, you’ve definitely made it.
No disrespect to Transparent or The Honorable Woman, but 2016 is even more loaded with buzzworthy new shows that are simultaneously hoping to score key Emmy nominations and raise the profile of their respective channel/platform: USA Network’s Mr. Robot, Lifetime’s UnREAL, WGN America’s Underground, and Hulu’s The Path. (While you could include The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a 2016 Golden Globe winner, here, I’m in ‘believe it when I see it’ mode with the Emmys and CW shows, unfortunately.) Although Hulu and those three cable channels have garnered some minor Emmy attention in the past, it wasn’t for a big drama series, television’s fast-pass to prestige. For these four shows, the stakes are high; a few nominations in major categories and maybe Everything Changes.
But what effect, if any, does Emmy attention have on upstart channels and streaming platforms? It’s unsurprisingly hard to quantify. A 2014 Fortune report identified a few "real" data points demonstrating the positive influence of Emmy love. For instance, Mad Men’s ratings nearly doubled in season two, after the show was awarded the Drama Series title in 2007. Netflix’s stock price jumped for a few days when it grabbed a bunch of nominations for the first time in 2012. These aren’t convincing. Sure, Mad Men’s ratings doubled between seasons one and two, but “doubled” meant a growth from roughly 1 million viewers to 2 million. The show never became a wide cultural phenomenon, despite nearly a decade of Emmy adulation. Stock prices are fickle results of black magic and the One World Government—they don’t matter in TV. Meanwhile, a recent USC study found that Americans don’t actually care about the Emmys, especially when considering what to watch. According to that survey, “fewer than one in 10” are likely to watch a show because it won an Emmy (let alone got nominated).
Unlike the Oscars, where the nominated films are regularly still in theaters during “Oscar Season” and therefore can get a bump at the box office when the nominations and wins start rolling in, the Emmys fall at a weird time in the calendar. Game of Thrones and Veep will probably benefit from just having finished their seasons because they’ll be fresh in voters’ minds. In contrast, Mr. Robot and UnREAL are trying to score nominations on the back of their previous seasons, both of which ended late last summer. Even if they do get nominated and win, the telecast doesn’t happen until September, when their most recent seasons will already be concluded. There will be no immediate, or remotely visible, ratings bump.
Recent history proves this to be true. FX made its first big splash in 2002 when Michael Chiklis won for his performance in the first season of The Shield. It didn’t suddenly become a ratings powerhouse, nor did it ever score a Drama Series nomination. AMC followed a similar path with Mad Men and Breaking Bad in 2007, but the channel’s biggest financial success—The Walking Dead—has never sniffed the major Emmy races. Netflix’s litany of nominations for House of Cards or Orange Is The New Black hasn't translated into too significant wins. Transparent put Amazon on the map in 2015, but that didn’t immediately make all its other shows, or its calculatedly populist “you vote for our pilots!” strategy any better.
The reality is that Emmys attention can’t be quantified, and that’s the point. We can’t make correlations between nominations and ratings, or past nominations leading to future nominations because television’s barometers for success are increasingly byzantine and unspecific. Instead, for new shows, content providers, or talent, it’s simply about being part of “the conversation” and leveraging the attention for branding reasons. Of course, this is why the television industry has gone crazy with For Your Consideration spending—investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in exclusive screenings and Q&As with cast and crews, ubiquitous advertising campaigns, and 20-pound DVD box sets of the prime candidates. Predictably, USA, Lifetime, WGN America, and Hulu have all ramped up their spending and FYC events this season. The easiest way to get into that conversation is to pay your way into it. Will it work?
The good news is that 2016’s biggest competitions are in limited series, where some of the most beloved shows—Fargo, The People V. O.J. Simpson, and American Crime—are preparing for a huge fight. Meanwhile, the drama race is theoretically shallow, with Mad Men’s departure and a bunch of weak past nominees like Homeland and House of Cards primed to be replaced. Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, and Downton Abbey are probably the only sure things in a field of seven nominees. If there was a ever a year to slide into the top tier on the back of sustained industry buzz, 2016 is it.
Though Academy members don’t care about shouting out a show or performer as early as possible, it’s typically easier to get the love after the initial season than it is to wait for the time to come. Since 2000, Breaking Bad is the only Drama Series winner not to be nominated for its first season, but even in that case Bryan Cranston won a Lead Actor trophy in that first year. All the other recent notable dramas—Mad Men, Homeland, Thrones, Downton, Good Wife, Saul, House of Cards, and Orange Is The New Black—were all nominated in their first seasons.
Still, some contenders have better chances than others. Mr. Robot’s year-long wave of support means it’s the most likely of the four to jump into the Drama Series race. Aaron Paul’s past Emmy support means that he’ll probably score The Path some attention, but the show didn’t seem to tap into the zeitgeist. UnREAL and Underground are the shows that could change the perception of their television homes the most, which means they’re facing a more significant uphill battle. If the Academy won’t acknowledge The CW, they are unlikely to fully embrace Lifetime or a former regional channel like WGN America.
Still, being part of the growing “Emmy Season” is victory enough for places like USA, Lifetime, Hulu, and WGN America. Although the entire For Your Consideration process can feel like a craven, self-congratulatory waste of time and money—even more than most Hollywood things, somehow—it’s the only real method for smaller or younger outfits like these to get recognized by the necessary organizations within the industry. It can eventually pay off too: Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany got nominated in 2015 after three years of hustling just as much at FYC events as she did on screen, where she plays approximately 21 different characters. Other shows like The Americans have translated Emmy snubs into support at the Critics’ Choice Television, Television Critics Association, and Peabody Awards.
But even if UnREAL’s Shiri Appleby doesn’t become the next Tatiana Maslany, or WGN America the next AMC, this summer has still been a major W. The right people are talking, and that’s a big step towards legitimacy, trophies or not.