How Emmy season is proceeding, with caution, amid the coronavirus crisis

March 23, 2020, 4:30 PM UTC

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As Hollywood absorbs the lasting, grim impact of shuttered theaters and delayed tentpoles, those on the inside of another showbiz economy—the Primetime Emmy Awards’ long, lucrative campaign season—are working to create a new normal amid the world’s unprecedented battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

Even the most ardent TV fan is most likely not aware of the Emmys until promos start to roll out after Labor Day. (This year’s telecast is set to air on ABC on Sept. 20.) Yet for show talent, craftspeople, executives, campaign strategists, trade journalists, and the 25,000 or so voting members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the Emmy telecast caps six-plus months of ad spending, “For Your Consideration” events (known to ring in at $200,000 a pop), and print-and-digital editorial coverage, all of which, in a normal year, would be getting into high gear right about now.

But aside from a few early FYC panel-screenings that had already taken place, including for HBO’s Westworld and The Plot Against America, live events have been suspended by the Television Academy until June 14.

Instead, the Academy is offering networks the option to keep their previously-set FYC event dates and instead live-stream audience-less Q&A panels on the TV Academy website—still featuring moderators in conversation with show talent—from the Wolf Theatre at its North Hollywood headquarters, to the tune of around $21,000. (Outlets also have the less expensive option to film their own panels offsite and stream them later.)

While clearly a pandemic-safe alternative, some wonder if virtual panels can connect voters with content in meaningful ways—that is, if they choose to tune in at all.

“We have a trifecta transforming the Emmy campaign landscape: the end of DVD mailers, mandatory screening links to TV Academy members, and now, social distancing,” says veteran awards consultant Rich Licata (Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel season one), who says that because voters often attend FYC screenings to schmooze with talent, enjoy free wine, and network, identifying an incentive for them to go online will be tricky, especially when they already have a barrage of screening links to consider too.

A New York–based consultant also wonders how a live-stream could simulate the same level of “interactive questioning” offered by a live Q&A. “How much the audience is able to interact with talent on stage greatly impacts voter perception of an actor or series,” she says.

Adds Licata: “Coronavirus has become the unexpected catalyst to level the David versus Goliath inequity of the Emmy-campaign playing field. With no obscenely expensive events, how will that affect the 2020 nominee list?”

K Callan, a 35-year member of the Academy’s actor branch (and the actress behind “Great Nana” in Knives Out), says she sees some viability in live-streaming, especially in the first year the Academy has banned physical-screener mailings for voters per coronavirus and waste concerns. A single DVD mailer in the past could have cost networks $1 million to mail to voters.

“It’s too bad screeners stopped this year as people are hungry for distraction, particularly for streaming-service shows, which not everyone can afford,” says Callan. “Because of this, voters could tune into online FYC events. The issue for networks will be figuring out ways for their presentations to stand out.”

Emmy’s biggest spenders are thus far staying mum on their specific coronavirus-era FYC strategies. But that doesn’t mean companies haven’t already committed a good portion of their awards budgets: Networks, studios, and streamers can shell out $100 million collectively during phase 1 of Emmy campaigns in the spring, deals that are often locked in by January. This means many, if not most, 2020 Emmy FYC print and digital ads in trade outlets such as Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, and The Wrap were locked in well before the coronavirus crisis hit the U.S.

“As of now, there shouldn’t be too much interruption to this revenue,” says one sales rep. “But a lot depends on the trades getting their Emmy issues into voters’ hands at home, including links to their digital editions.”

A glut of preset Emmy FYC ads requires a glut of Emmy content to support them. What exactly that looks like during a pandemic remains to be seen. The Hollywood Reporter, for one, has booked but since delayed shooting its popular A-list talent roundtable series as the country copes with quarantining. Emmy pundits are scrambling to redefine content strategies, including ramping up social-distancing-friendly interviews via podcasting and Skype.

But perhaps the biggest question is, Just how game are TV talent to campaign for gold statues during such incredibly dark times?

Better Call Saul’s Rhea Seehorn says it’s a delicate balance between crisis control and hoping for the best. “We’re so appreciative of the attention the Television Academy has given our show and participate in as many FYC events as possible,” says Seehorn, whose critically acclaimed role as attorney Kim Wexler has minted her a top contender for supporting actress in a drama series for the now-airing fifth season of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel.

“We’re also really proud of our show and want to promote it! But events, with their large groups, now threaten not just the safety of attendees but the nation’s and the world’s. It’s pretty crazy,” she tells Fortune. “We have to wait and see…but whether via social media or virtual panels—I think everyone is willing to find alternate ways to [campaign], while also doing everything we can to get through a terrible health crisis by acting responsibly and expecting the same from those around us.”

Tom O’Neil, editor of the awards-prediction site Gold Derby, says that personally, he’s “skeptical voters will watch videos online they need to in order to cast informed votes,” which could make pundits’ coverage and analyses even more relevant, especially in a massively crowded season in which Emmy’s most prestigious prizes—outstanding comedy and drama series—have no incumbent competitors. (That’s because 2019 winners Fleabag and Game of Thrones both ended last year.)

“Gold Derby will continue to cover Emmy races,” he says of his outlet, which serves as the go-to destination for publicists and awards reps to track talent’s awards buzz throughout the year. “In the grand Hollywood tradition, the show must go on.”  

In keeping with that spirit, in an email to Fortune on March 18, a spokesperson for the Television Academy dispelled any notion that September’s Emmys telecast was in immediate danger of being canceled. “There are no planned changes to the Emmy calendar at this time,” she said. “We will continue to monitor the situation and update when appropriate.”

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