'Huff' starts early with push to buoy Emmy prospects

Showtime is the underdog of pay-cable networks, constantly competing against HBO, its much larger and well-funded rival.

Showtime is the underdog of pay-cable networks, constantly competing against HBO, its much larger and well-funded rival.

Ask Showtime's executives, though, and they'll quickly tell you that their programming is as cutting-edge and innovative as anything that other channel has to offer, but its smaller subscription numbers mean fewer people have the chance to experience it.

That's one of the reasons that winning awards for programming is so important - it helps raise the visibility of shows, such as Huff, that aren't on the radar of many viewers, even those in the entertainment industry who hand out the accolades.

Each year, the 12,000 voting members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences are bombarded with hundreds of hours of TV series on DVDs in the spring and are expected to choose the year's best and boldest shows and performers as Emmy nominees. The problem is, in a field crowded with well-known offerings like Lost and Desperate Housewives, just getting those voters to view a show like Huff is a challenge. But Richard Licata, Showtime VP of communications, and his team stepped up to the challenge of winning Emmy recognition for the first-season program.

Strategy

Along with its limited audience, Huff presented the secondary challenge of having its season finale take place in January, "so there would have been four to five months that it was out of sight" before the voting took place, says Licata. In addition, like many cable shows, it had a 13-episode season, as opposed to 20-plus for network shows.

To combat those hurdles, Licata and his team decided on a simple-sounding, but risky strategy: Send out the entire series on disc in the first week of February, about four months before other Emmy competitors would send out their own packages, in an effort to "avoid the clutter that all the Academy members are bombarded with in May and June," he says.

Although it sounds like a reasonable strategy, the team knew it could backfire because many voters weren't thinking of the balloting yet, and there was the chance that the DVDs would sit on shelves and be forgotten. But Licata was hoping for the opposite - that the extra time would encourage voters to pop it in the DVD player "on a lazy Sunday afternoon," he says.

Tactics

The Huff mailer went out in a leather-lined box to help it grab attention. It was sent to journalists, as well. While many shows send out only their top episodes, Licata decided that mailing the entire season of Huff was also an important move.

"As the TV universe becomes more crowded, people want to have complete experiences and live with a show from its first episode to its last," he reasons. "Huff is that perfect show in that you need to see how it unfolds dramatically."

Then, to remind voters to watch, the network ran an extensive ad campaign in the entertainment trades in the spring.

After mailing the show to journalists, Licata followed up with some of them. He made a point to not over-hype the show with other tactics, however, so as not to become overbearing with voters and the media, and, thus, work against his goal.

Results

"I lay in bed the night before the nominations saying, 'Oh my God, what a gamble,'" says Licata. But his worry was needless, as Huff became the first program in Showtime's 30-year history to receive Emmy nominations in the categories of best actor (Hank Azaria), best supporting actor (Oliver Platt), and best actress (Blythe Danner) for a drama series, with a total of seven nominations in all.

In addition to the high quality of the show, says Licata, "to get the number of nominations we got first season out had to have something to do with the fact that we mailed out early."

Future

Licata and his team are now running a low-key effort aimed at closing the deal and winning a few Emmys, which will be announced on September 18.

PR team Showtime Networks (New York)
Campaign Emmy nominations for Huff
Time frame January to July 2005
Budget $150,000




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